Wild Profile: Meet the red-backed salamander

Published: December 1, 2020

A red-backed salamander against a yellow fall leaf By Steve Bower/Shutterstock

The red-backed salamander—like all salamanders—is one of the oldest land vertebrates on Earth. (In fact, today’s salamanders aren’t that different than some of the first amphibians that crawled out of the water 400 million years ago.) But this tiny, slender critter spends most of its life unnoticed, silently creeping through soil and debris. You’ll rarely see them, but know that they’re there—sometimes in huge numbers. One salamander has a home range of only a few square metres, so many—up to 2,500 per square hectare—can pack themselves into even a small portion of a cottage-country forest.

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Fall—with it’s rainy weather—is prime time for red-backed salamanders. They hate the heat and thrive in dampness. They need moist skin to breathe—they have no lungs. Instead, they use their wet skin, and the roof of their mouths, to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Also interesting? Red-backed salamanders have two colour “phases” and the more common one isn’t always red at all. Most salamanders are grey or black, with a long dorsal stripe that stretches from head to tail, and can be pink, yellow, grey, or brownish-orange; others are solid-coloured, with no stripe.

Fall is also typically breeding time for red-backs; once winter sets in, they’ve tucked themselves away into empty mammal burrows or rock crevices, at least 40 cm below the ground and safely beneath the frost line. Then, by the time early summer rolls around, females are laying eggs. For two months, they protect the soon-to-be-offspring by wrapping their bodies around the clutch to keep them damp. Baby red-backed salamanders look like tiny adults. They’ll spend a few weeks with Mom before venturing off on their own.

Unlike plenty of other amphibians, today, red-backed salamander numbers are still decently strong. Their main threat? Timber harvesting. Removing the forest canopy exposes the salamanders to more sunlight—no good for a species that needs to stay cool to survive.

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