Like most salamanders, red-backs are active at night and commonly roam the forest floor on rainy nights, so they're seldom seen except by rock flippers and log rollers. And though red-backs are easy to find under rocks and logs, on any given day most are below ground. In four consecutive weekly population surveys in Michigan, for example, the number of red-backs collected each time remained constant. This suggests that most of the time most red-backs are underground.
Because red-backs are so abundant, they play an important role in forest food chains. They're active predators and eat just about anything they can catch. Their menu includes ants, termites, beetles, earthworms, spiders, snails, slugs, mites, springtails, centipedes, and millipedes. One study estimated that red-backs eat nearly 3/4-million prey items per acre per year.
On the other hand, red-backs also are important food for small forest snakes, shrews, voles, chipmunks and birds that forage in the leaf litter. Towhees come immediately to mind.
Surprisingly, red-back salamanders usually breed in the fall. Though males breed every year, females in the northern part of their range breed every other year. Apparently it takes northern females more than a full year to generate energy-rich yolks for a full clutch of eggs.
Males find females by following pheromone trails. After some ritualistic posturing, the male deposits a spermatophore -- a package of sperm -- on the ground. The female then straddles the spermatophore, picks up the sperm, and stores it in a special chamber called the spermatheca, where she can store the sperm for months. In the spring or early summer when the female lays her eggs, she releases the sperm and fertilizes the eggs as they are laid.
The eggs, usually two to 14, are laid in grape-like clusters in natural cavities and crevices under rocks and logs. They are pale, less than a quarter-inch in diameter, and enveloped in gelatinous material. The female coils around the eggs to protect them from predators and prevent them from drying out during the six-week incubation period. After hatching, juveniles remain in the nest with the female for several weeks before dispersing.
To observe red-backed salamanders in the field, flip a few rocks and roll a few logs. But be careful where you put your hands if you live in rattlesnake or copperhead country. Use a walking stick or an old golf putter to keep your hands out of harm's way.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or email sshala...@aol.com.