With a typical home range of only a few square metres and population densities that can exceed 2,500 individuals per hectare, the eastern red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus) is often the most abundant vertebrate on the landscape.
This small and slender salamander has two different colour phases. The more typical is black or dark grey with a broad, straight-edged stripe down the back from head to tail. This stripe is usually red or brownish orange but may be yellow, pink or grey. A leadback phase also occurs, in which the salamander is solid black or dark grey. In both phases, this salamander has black and white mottling on the belly and lower sides.
The northern dusky salamander can look similar to this species but always has a light line that runs diagonally from the eye to the jaw. In the northern two-lined salamander, the stripe down its back has a conspicuous dark outline. Blue-spotted and Jefferson salamanders can be distinguished from leadbacks by their blue spotting and stouter bodies. Four-toed salamanders have four toes, instead of five, on the hind feet and a white underside with black spots.
The eastern red-backed salamander is most commonly observed in deciduous or mixed forests but may also be found in cool, moist white pine or hemlock forests. The species is restricted to mature woodlands with lots of fallen logs, coarse woody debris and leaf litter. This salamander may hide underground on hot, dry days. It usually hibernates underground but may also overwinter in small mammal dens or even ant mounds.
View an interactive map of the known ranges of eastern red-backed salamanders in Ontario.
Eastern red-backed salamanders usually breed in the fall but sometimes do so in the spring. The females breed in their third year and thereafter may breed only in alternate years. They lay from three to 15 eggs in June or July in a rotting stump or log. The females tend the eggs for six to eight weeks and stay with the hatchlings for one to three weeks. When the larvae first hatch, they have small gills, but these are soon absorbed and the young then resemble the adults.
This species, which defends its small territory from other salamanders and tends to wander very little, eat a variety of small terrestrial invertebrates and is sometimes cannibalistic.
Other names: Salamandra cinerea, Plethodon cinereus cinereus, redback salamander, red-backed salamander
Threats and Trends
Intensive timber harvesting destroys the habitat of the eastern red-backed salamander; the removal of the forest canopy radically alters the local microclimate, probably because of increased penetration of sunlight. Even forested areas adjacent to roads, clearcuts and utility corridors have reduced salamander numbers that are probably due to such microclimatic changes. Overall, this species does not appear to be declining in significant numbers.
Current Status and Protection
Neither the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario nor the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has assessed the status of the eastern red-backed salamander. The species has been designated as a Specially Protected Amphibian under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the global status of the eastern red-backed salamander as Least Concern. The species’ status was confirmed in January 2010.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.