What’s Living Beneath the Forest Floor?
….Well a lot of things actually. Most of us don’t realize that under the dead and rotting logs and the accumulation of leaf litter there is an entire ecosytem hidden from view, yet teeming with life. Most of these creatures aren’t even as large as our little finger, and some are so small that they are invisible to the naked eye. One of the larger animals you can encounter under the fallen leaves in New England is the red-backed salamander (Plethodon cineveus). These cool creatures are amphibians and they are found in decidous forests throught the northeast of the United States and southern Canada, south to North Carolina and west to Missouri and Minnesota.
Unlike many other salamanders, which are born in and spend their larval stage in water, the red-backed salander is entirely terrestrial. They are born from eggs as a minature adult (no larval phase), mature in two years, and can live up to 25 years! In the wild this life span is unlikely because salamanders are preyed on by birds, small mammals, and snakes. If under stress from a predator the red-backed salamander has the ability to drop all or part of its tail in defense (the tail will later grow back). Salamanders occupy an important link in the foodchain, not only as a food source, but as a predator. Salamanders eat a variety of insects and other invertebrates.
Red-backed salamanders are commonly found throughout their range but are limited to moist areas. They lack lungs and therefor breathe through their skin, which must stay moist at all times. A dry salamander is a dead salamander if it cannot find water. Their porous skin make salamanders very susceptible to changes to their environment, most notably soil pH. This is especially a problem in areas most affected by acid rain, which decreases soil pH.
Log rolling and exploring the forest floor is a fun and educational acitivity for kids and adults alike. If you discover a salamander, please not not handle it if you have applied bug spray, sunscreen, or other chemicals since these toxins will leach into the salamander’s skin (the same is true for toads and frogs). Be gentle and return rolled logs to their oringal position- remember that it may be home to hundreds of little organisms. Happy explorations!
AMC Naturalist Guide