Red-Backed Salamanders

2016 November 5

So, on May 26, 2016, we got a phone call from some friends of ours asking if we’d like to come over to see some salamanders. Well, of course we would, so we went over to their place. “Where are they?” we asked.
“In the basement”.
“Oh, you have them in a container down there?”
“No, they are coming into the basement on their own!”


And sure enough, there they were. The only thing we could figure was that they were coming in through the floor drain.


Why were they coming into the basement? Well, it was warm, but not too warm, and sufficiently moist. And, for that matter, why not?


These were pretty small, as you can see by comparing them with Sam’s fingers in these photos. They are about the size and general shape of a smallish earthworm, which they can easily be mistaken for (aside from the legs).


They are pretty obviously Red-Backed Salamanders, Plethodon cinereus. They are easily the most common salamanders in our region, and can be found in moist, forested areas under logs and heavy leaf litter. And, apparently, in basements. While they are amphibians, they are unusual in that they do not need to go to a body of water to breed. Their eggs are laid in moist places on land, and they go through their “tadpole” stage completely before hatching, so they are ready to walk around immediately after they hatch. So, while other amphibians are only found near lakes, rivers, streams, pools, or at least puddles, these can be found all over the place.

The very young red-backed salamanders are red enough to be mistaken for the “eft” stage of the Eastern Newt, which is toxic, so this is probably a case of mimicry and not just a coincidence. The red-backed salamanders can also shed their tails and regenerate them later, as an aid to escaping predators. There are two distinct color phases in this species – in addition to the “red-back” that we see here, there is also a “lead-back” that lacks the red stripe.

They are a little touchy to keep as pets, as they are sensitive to temperature and require fairly specific humidity levels. This is because they don’t have lungs, and breathe through their skins. So if they get too dry, they can’t get enough gas exchange across their skins, but if they are too wet, they will drown. But, if you want to try it, there are pretty detailed instructions on the Caudata Culture site. One of the recommendations is to keep their container in your basement. Given where these were found, that should be no surprise.

2 Responses
  1. November 16, 2016

    I was wondering about the skeletal structure and found this. Apparently, they have a spine, a skull, legs and a pair of pelvises. (Pelvi?)

  2. November 16, 2016

    A thing that I think is interesting is that salamanders and frogs don’t have a fully-enclosed rib cage. These red-backed salamanders don’t need a rib cage because they don’t breathe through lungs at all. The frogs don’t need a rib cage either because instead of pulling in air by expanding the rib cage and diaphragm to create suction like we do, they breathe by pumping air in with their mouths (which is why their throats pulse when they breathe)

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