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The Herps of La Crosse

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Red-backed Salamander
(Plethodon cinereus)


        Description: Red-backed salamanders are one of smallest salamanders in the state, attaining adult lengths of only 3 to 5 inches.  They can easily be distinguished from most other salamanders in Wisconsin because of their relatively slender body and small appendages.  In addition, as their name implies, these salamanders have a brick-red to bright-red stripe running down the center of their backs.  However, gray specimens are occasionally found.  Red-backed Salamanders are members of the family Plethodontidae, which are the "lungless" salamanders.  Species in this family have no lungs to respire and instead must "breath" through their skin.  Other representatives of this family found in Wisconsin include the Four-toed Salamander, with which Red-backed Salamanders may occasionally be confused.  However, as the name suggests, Four-toed Salamanders have four toes on their hind feet, whereas Red-backed salamanders have five.

        Habitat/Ecology: Red-backed Salamanders generally prefer moist woodlots and are generally found under rotting organic debris (such as leaf litter and fallen logs).  In areas where I have encountered them, they seemed to be most frequently found under birch logs which were in advanced stages of decay and very soft.  These salamanders spend most of their time burrowing through organic litter in search of prey that includes many soft-bodied invertebrates (worms, slugs, grubs, etc.).  The breeding season typically is reported as occurring from mid-September to early November (depending on location), however egg deposition does not occur until the following spring.  It should be noted that these red-backed salamanders are the only salamander species whose larvae are not fully aquatic.  On the contrary, eggs are laid in moist, rotting logs (where they are guarded by the female) until hatching into smaller versions of the adults that live terrestrially.

        Remarks: Christoffel et al. (2001) shows these salamanders as existing in the northern half of the state and only the northeastern portion of La Crosse County.  I have witnessed large numbers of Red-backed salamanders in northern Wisconsin (Bayfield Co.) and in environments where they exist, they seem to be very abundant.  Unfortunately, I have never encountered them in our area.  This lack of recorded sightings near our portion of the Mississippi River, however, may be the product of little effort being put into finding them here.  Therefore, anyone who thinks that they may have found a Red-backed Salamander in the La Crosse area should report it to the Bureau of Endangered Resources (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources).

above: a female red-backed salamander along with a tiny juvenile.

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