Species Profile: Western Red-Backed Salamander

Camouflaged into dead leaves and humus, the Western Red-backed Salamander captured in this week’s BC Wetlands Photo of the Week could have only been seen by the keen eye of someone looking for those things that crawl in hidden places.  Our choice photographer this week, Sean McCann, found this beautiful amphibian in Goldstream Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, where he has showcased the purpose of this animal’s rusty colouring.

Red-Backed Salamander (Plethodon vehiculum) can be found between our province and southern Oregon where it prefers Douglas Fir or conifer-lined riparian areas for habitat. This Salamander is a terrestrial amphibian and uses the damp places on land and shorelines of wetlands to lay eggs and cool itself in the heat of summer, but does not have an aquatic larval stage. Because of this, it has less competition with many other species of gilled Salamander that we are familiar with. If you wander the hardwood/conifer forests of our coast, you may be lucky enough to find this salamander under rocks or small logs along stream banks or in shady areas.  If the forest you walk is young, you may still be lucky: these are one of the few species of Pacific Northwest Salamanders that will live in a young forest. When you do find a Western Red-Back, you can be sure that it won’t stray far: these amphibians have a very small home-range and their territory often only spans a few square meters.

There are 9 different species of Salamander native to British Columbia. The Western Red-Backed Salamander can be distinguished from the others by their colouring: they can have a red or yellow dorsal stripe and the sides of their head are often slightly spotted in white (take a close look at the photograph to see this): perfect for hiding in the damp leaves of a forest floor. Their mating season is the fall and hatchlings can be seen as fully formed little Salamanders late in the same season.

While this species of amphibian is not threatened and can be commonly seen (sometimes several will be found under one log!), it is important to protect their habitat. The constant and multiple threats to ephemeral wetlands, stream banks and forests will inevitably affect this lovely and secretive animal. Like other amphibians, it is also very easily affected by chemical and temperature changes in its environment, as it breathes through its moist and sensitive skin. We cannot forget that this one species is also a part of a complex food chain: it feeds on snails, Pacific Tree Frogs, Red-legged Frog Tadpoles and small invertebrates; and it sustains other animals including Garter Snakes, Shrew Moles, American Dippers and Carabid Beetles. When this chain is disturbed there are countless impacts that we may not be able to predict.

We thank Sean McCann for adding this photograph to our Wetlands of BC Photo Group. Take a look and consider adding your prized pictures of wetlands and their many inhabitants for everyone to appreciate! If you’d like to learn more about this or other animals, take a look at E-Fauna, found on our “Other Resources” page.

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