dinner date? the salamander and the snail

IF I WERE FEELING VERY CREATIVE I’d write a children’s book: “The Salamander and the Snail.” It would be about an encounter and subsequent relationship between two living creatures I interrupted when moving a big pot next to my doorway, during garden cleanup. But rather than write that just now, how about I share some of the fascinating facts about the Eastern Red-Backed Salamander, Plethodon cinereus, a lungless, long-lived little creature who doesn’t have an aquatic stage like other salamanders and most amphibians?

That’s what I have learned so far from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology’s Animal Diversity Web, another of my favorite hunting grounds for information about the natural world’s creatures. Their portrait of the Eastern Red-Backed Salamander explains that this species respires through its moist skin–meaning dry times are hard times–and cannot tolerate extreme acid conditions (such as a pH of about 3.7 or lower).

No wonder these slender little salamanders are always tucked in under my pots, since they are a favorite food of various mammals, snakes and even some birds. Hideouts! Everybody has to eat something, so as for what they eat themselves: Snails are on the diet, apparently (along with various insects, mites and spiders, worms, millipedes and more), so I wonder how long the new relationship depicted above in my photo would have lasted.

“They forage by thrusting out their tongue in a quick, forward motion and capturing the prey,” the Animal Diversity Web portrait says. I guess I should have kept watching the two of them a little longer.

other salamander friends

DON’T TELL THE FROGS–my favorite amphibians–but I have friends among the salamanders, too, and not just red-backed ones (who by the way are said to perhaps live a decade or twice that if they get lucky and stay off the predators’ dinner buffet). The Eastern Spotted, Ambystoma maculatum (below) uses my backyard water gardens for laying eggs, and I am happily surrounded by the Eastern Newt (or Red Spotted salamander, Notophthalmus viridescens), especially individuals in the the red eft stage of life–the terrestrial life phase–who appear in the garden after every rainstorm (like the one above, in my hands; photo by Erica Berger). At other times of life, they live in the little pools out back with all their amphibian cousins who grace me with their presence.

Spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatum


  1. Thanks Margaret !I have been working on educational wall decals for kids rooms and have plants and their pollinators.. this gives me more “food for thought” .. I have seen more salamanders this year than past 3 ..
    Thanks Dale

  2. Carol says:

    I love salamanders–always have–but it seemed that I only saw them on vacation. Now I have another reason to create hidey-holes in my own garden (sometime in the future; there are none in my small apartment house garden)!

  3. narf7 says:

    We don’t get salamanders here on Serendipity Farm which is probably lucky for salamanders because its a constant rumble out there over who eats who and these poor little guys wouldn’t stand a chance. How beautiful they are! I can’t understand people not liking these humble little fascinating creatures. I will swap you some of my lizards for some of your salamanders :)

  4. Susan says:

    I love these salamanders. Haven’t seen any around my place. Can’t tolerate creatures without legs. They scare me to death.

  5. Ellen says:

    Years ago we’d see the red spotted efts after a heavy rain, glowing orange darlings on the dark pavement, and move them out of harm’s way. They’re all gone now so I’m happy to learn they’re thriving in your garden! A small reservoir up-mountain, home to the adults, was drained once too often perhaps, to allow them to continue. Or could it be acid rain?

  6. Deborah B says:

    Nice pictures. We have all these guys too, though I’ve only seen the red-backed ones a couple times. The red efts are everywhere in our woods after a rain, and I occasionally even come across one marching across the big field, or nearly on the back doorstep near the dog yard. I usually move those somewhere more hospitable like the shade garden, but it makes me wonder where they were headed and why. And was I helping or just putting them in some other eft’s territory?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Green Thumb. Sometimes when I am outdoors (well, most of the time, actually) I think I wish kids could spend more time with the creatures I see. Inspiring.

  7. I am with Green Thumb. The method though may not just be via a book. Keep musing about how you could inspire kids to spend more time with these creatures–you’ll come up with something. My nephew and niece surprised me how interested they were in the insects in my garden.

    While the orange one is a cutie, the dark salamander is all dressed up in a slick, fancy, polka dot number. :-) Thanks for the great animal diversity link.

  8. Patricia says:

    My husband majored in biology in college, so whenever he spotted something interesting in the garden he’d yell for us all to come see. As a result, my kids, now adults, love nature and seeing it in action. They have seen more creatures dining on other creatures, and love to grow their own gardens and indoor plants. I was a little upset when he called us to watch a snake eating a frog, but the kids, as young as they were at the time, were fascinated.
    We saw what he said was a yellow spotted salamander, but it did not look like yours. It was clear and almost transparent. He found it under a rock that he was moving. Needless to say, the rock stayed right where he found it. It had to be made a part of the garden for that little fellow. We also had to fill out a form stating exactly where and when we found it and report it to some organization he knows about. It appears that this particular type of salamander was quite rare in our area.

  9. Carole Clarin says:

    My husband identified the “red eft newt” stage that he learned about almost 60 years ago as a Boy Scout. He now tells me the scouts kept them as pets, putting them in large cans from the mess hall before letting them go. We often find them around our property and he introduced them to our children when they were young and then to our grandchildren.

  10. I found one of the red backed guys under one of my flower pots in my garden in Maine. So far I have not come across one in my new garden in NY but I have been observing increasing amounts of snails which might lead to a dinner date with a salamander! Thanks for sharing the great Animal Diversity web resource.

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