The Eastern Red-backed Salamander is the most abundant terrestrial vertebrate in New England. Unlike many salamanders, it is terrestrial year-round – living, mating, laying eggs, feeding, and hibernating.
Eastern Red-backed Salamanders can occur in two color phases, lead-back and red-back. The lead-back phase salamanders are a consistent gray to black color while the red-back phase is characterized by an orange to red stripe down the length of their body and tail. In both phases, they are distinguishable by their mottled white and black undersides and five toes on their hind feet.
Due to its lack of lungs, this slender salamander must live in damp or moist habitats in order to breath. It is active into late fall, inhabiting rotting logs or living under moist leaf litter, bark, stones, etc. When cold weather really sets in, it will hibernate down to 15 inches in the soil, or in deep leaf litter or rock crevices. (Congratulations to Helen L., the first NC reader to correctly identify the latest Mystery Photo as an Eastern Red-backed Salamander!)
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The migration of amphibians from the woodlands where they overwinter to their breeding pools in March is a familiar spring phenomenon to most. However, some of these amphibians engage in a fall migration as well. Amphibians (and reptiles) need to find a good overwintering spot, where they won’t freeze. In some cases, that might be a few feet upstream or into a seepage area, and in others it is a few hundred yards uphill. The extent of the migration and the species participating vary in different parts of the state.
In western Vermont, Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas(http://vtherpatlas.org), has observed Blue-spotted and Four-toed Salamanders moving down into wetlands in the spring, staying close to the wetland for moisture and feeding during the summer, and then moving uphill back to wintering areas in the fall. On the other hand, he has found that most Spotted and Jefferson Salamanders, as well as Wood Frogs, move down in the spring to breed, and then head back uphill in stages soon after they are done breeding.
Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (pictured) migrate as needed during the summer to maintain their body moisture, and in the fall, search for an animal burrow or crevice to hibernate in. Migration often occurs at night, while it’s raining, so as to prevent their skin from drying out. (Amphibians need to have moist skin because a large portion of the frog’s “breathing” occurs via oxygen diffusing through the skin. Oxygen will not diffuse through a dry membrane.) After the very dry summer we’ve had, a large number of amphibians were observed taking advantage of the recent rain and migrating.
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Inevitably, as newly-emerged drying dragonflies and damselflies hang over the surface of the water on emergent vegetation, breezes blow and some of them lose their grip, falling into the water below. At this stage, their bodies are soft and they are not capable of flight, which leaves them very vulnerable to aquatic predators such as Eastern Newts. While amphibian eggs, aquatic insects, crustaceans, worms and small molluscs make up most of their diet, Eastern Newts are quick to make a meal of most invertebrates that end up in the water.
Eastern Red-backed Salamanders reside in the leaf litter throughout the Northeast during the summer months. Here they scent-mark their territories on the forest floor with pheromones and fecal matter in order to convey information concerning their body size and gender to other Red-backed Salamanders. If the temperature soars or the humidity drops, these salamanders do just what they do in the fall – seek deeper, moister protected areas such as beneath stones, under and within rotting logs and stumps, or underground in animal burrows.
Whereas they migrate downwards in summer to avoid the heat and dry air that would impair their ability to breathe through their skin, these salamanders are avoiding the approaching cold when they migrate downwards in the fall. Red-backed Salamanders are not freeze tolerant, and thus must avoid freezing temperatures. Once ensconced in a freeze-free hibernaculum, they usually remain there until snowmelt.
A few short weeks ago spotted salamanders gathered at vernal pools to breed and lay eggs. Since then their eggs have started hatching, and gilled spotted salamander larvae can now be found in these pools. The larvae are major predators and consume many insects and crustaceans, including mosquito larvae and fairy shrimp. During the next two or three months, these larvae will develop lungs, absorb their feathery gills and begin life as terrestrial amphibians, assuming the temporary pools they are in don’t dry up prematurely.
Wood Frogs mate and lay their eggs in ponds and occasionally vernal pools before heading back to their terrestrial, wooded habitat. Amphibian eggs are subject to predation by numerous predators, including leeches, fish, aquatic insects and salamanders. Eastern Newts (aquatic as larvae and adults) are carnivorous and consume insect larvae, fingernail clams, leeches and amphibian eggs, among other things. At this time of year, Wood Frog eggs are plentiful and easily accessible, as the individual masses, each consisting of 1,000 to 2,000 eggs, are deposited adjacent to each other on submerged vegetation. Hungry newts can feed for hours without moving more than an inch, and many often do. After discovering an egg mass, a newt plunges its head into the clump of eggs, grabs one and, with great shaking of its head, separates an egg from the mass and quickly swallows it. Seconds later the newt repeats this process, and continues doing so until it is satiated.