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Red-backed salamander. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/ndw/">Norman Walsh</a>, cc <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/deed.en">some rights reserved</a>
Red-backed salamander. Photo: Norman Walsh, cc some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Red-backed Salamanders

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This northern forest species is so common that its biomass would outweigh all the large mammals and birds in its habitat combined. Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager look at forest amphibians.

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After finding a salamander in the woods, Martha Foley tried to identify it by using the Golden Book Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians. However, the coloration of the salamander didn’t match any of the species in the book. It turned out to be a red-backed salamander.

“There’s a lot of color variation in there. The ones you normally think of are maybe almost five inches long, and they have a red or orange sort of stripe running along the whole back and the tail. But that can be different colors, sometimes brown or grey or tan,” said Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College.

According to Stager, there is also a lead-back version of this salamander, which is slate gray in color. A rare variant is purely red or orange in color. Stager said, “You don’t see it very often except in places where there’s lots of newts.”

The newts have land-dwelling and aquatic stages and are toxic. The red-backed salamanders come in an all-red color when they can be confused for these newts. This gives them protection from predators. Also, if a salamander is picked up by its tail, it can drop off of it to escape. Stager says that this is an effective defense strategy because predators are left distracted by the salamander’s tail while the amphibian runs away.

“It’s better than being eaten alive, but there are aggressive interactions between salamanders where they try to bite each other’s tail off sometime. It’s bad because they store their body fat in their tail and that helps them get through the winter,” said Stager. “They definitely need a defense. Being amphibians, they don’t have claws and teeth and almost anything eats these.”

Salamanders are preyed on by a wide variety of predators including owls and raccoons. Stager said, “If you added up the biomass of salamanders in the northern forests, it’s actually more mass of those than there is of deer and other mammals and birds combined.”

The salamanders live under the leaf litter and soil. They have been found below the frost line during the winter with insects in their guts. This indicates that they may even be active during the coldest months of the year.

Red-backed salamanders lay their eggs on land in rotten logs rather than in the water. When the salamanders hatch, they resemble their mature parents instead of being tadpoles.

A variety of folk tales and lore surround salamanders, and it has been rumored that they can survive fire. Stager said, “You can kind of guess how that would happen, too. They do live in these rotten logs or hollows in the logs and lay their eggs in there, so you can just imagine someone in the Middle Ages in Europe coming home with some kind of a salamander in one of these logs they’re throwing on their fire. The thing pops out into the coals and they think, ‘Oh, it likes it in there.’ And there comes the myth.”

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