How to Survive the Cold as a Salamander
By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator
Throughout millions of years, animals have evolved amazing adaptations to survive through the winter. Some animals have thick fur, some travel far distances to warmer climates, some go into long dormant periods, and some actually allow their bodies to freeze. Then there are the red-backed salamanders.
Red-backed Salamanders are small amphibians native to Connecticut. They are found most commonly on the forest floor tucked into the leaf litter and other detritus. These amphibians are named after their vibrant red/orange stripe that goes down the back of the body from the tip of the head to the end of the tail. But they also come in different morphs, or skin patterns, including the “led-backed” salamander, which is all black.
It is vital for these salamanders to stay moist so that they can breathe. Due to their lack of lungs, red-backed salamanders breathe through their skin. It is important that the skin stays moist because salamanders cannot get oxygen directly from the air. It has to transfer from the air, to the moist mucus layer above the skin, and then into thin blood vessels just below the surface of the salamander’s skin. So in hot summer months, the red-backed salamander escapes the heat by hiding under moist logs and leaves in the forest.
Unfortunately, red-backed salamanders have no physical adaptations to survive the cold. They are not freeze tolerant like the native wood frog. When the temperatures drop in the fall, they dig down deeper into the soil to avoid the frost level, and hibernate until the snow melts. If you ever uncover a salamander, or any amphibian in the wintertime, it is important to cover them back up as quickly as possible to help prevent that moisture from evaporating away.
Holland, Mary. Naturally Curious. North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square Books, 2010.