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red-backed salamander

Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

The Red-backed Salamander is in the family Plethodontidae, a large and very diverse group of salamanders that includes more than 250 species. All Plethodontids are lungless and must absorb and release respiratory gasses directly through their moist skin and mouth lining.

Not all Red-backed Salamanders have the characteristic red or orange stripe down the back. In some populations the stripe is dark gray or black. These are the same species, Plethodon cinereus, but are sometimes called lead-backed salamanders. The underside in both types is mottled black and white.

Red-backed salamanders have a completely terrestrial life-cycle. In most other amphibians mating occurs in the water and the eggs develop into aquatic larvae or tadpoles. In Red-backs and some other closely related species mating occurs on land and fertilization occurs internally. The females lay clusters of eggs in crevices or under logs in the soil. She coils herself around the eggs to keep them moist and remains buried with them until they hatch. The typical larval tadpole stages of development that we are familiar with in other amphibians occur inside the egg instead of in water and fully developed salamanders are born that grow to an adult size of 2.3 to 5 inches (5.8 to 12.7 cm).

Because they are extremely sensitive to dry or acid conditions that interfere with their ability to exchange gasses across their skin, these salamanders are restricted to mesic deciduous forests. They are one of the most common salamanders found in the forests of the eastern part of the United States and south-eastern Canada. Large populations exist in northern Wisconsin forests. Look for them under rocks or under decaying logs. They are predators and feed on invertebrates including mites, insects, and worms that they find foraging through the leaf litter.


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Last updated on December 18, 2014