Southern Red-Backed Salamander

Plethodon serratus

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Photo of a southern red-backed salamander on an oak leaf.
The southern red-backed salamander is small and slender with a distinct red or orange mid-dorsal stripe with saw-toothed edges.
Jim Rathert
Family

Plethodontidae (lungless salamanders) in the order Caudata (salamanders)

Description

A small, dark, slender salamander with a long, rounded tail. A distinct, narrow, red or orange mid-dorsal stripe with saw-toothed edges that correspond with the body (costal) grooves is usually present, though some specimens lack the red dorsal stripe altogether. The sides are brownish gray with some red pigment. The belly is covered with gray mottling. There are 18 or 19 costal grooves (vertical grooves on the sides of the body).

Similar species: The dorsal stripe of the Ozark zigzag salamander (P. angusticlavius) is usually very thin (less than a third of the width of the body), may be broken up into lobes, and is always widest near the hind limbs. It range overlaps but is generally southwest of the range of the southern red-backed salamander’s.

Size

Length: 2¼–4 inches.

Habitat and conservation

A terrestrial salamander that commonly lives in forests, where it hides under rocks, clumps of mosses, and rotten logs. During dry parts of summer, it may be found near seepages, springs, or in thick leaf litter in ravines. It has uncommonly been found in the dimly lit area beyond a cave entrance.

Foods

A variety of small arthropods, such as insects and spiders.

image of Southern Red-Backed Salamander Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Southern, central, eastern, and southeastern Ozarks.

Life cycle

Courtship and mating occur in autumn; eggs are laid the following June and July. Only 6 or 7 eggs are produced; they are fertilized as they exit the female’s body, using sperm stored since the previous autumn. The eggs are attached to a thin stalk suspended from the top of a cavity under rotten logs or in a clump of moss. Females remain with the eggs until they hatch, which is sometime in August.

Human connections

Like other amphibians, this salamander depends on humans to restrain from destroying, degrading, and fragmenting their native habitat. Salamanders are both literally and figuratively voiceless. People who care about their survival must speak up for them when it comes to public policy.

Ecosystem connections

These and other lungless salamanders are integral parts of the forested areas they occupy. As predators, they help control the numbers of the insects and other creatures they eat. As prey, the adults, eggs, and young help feed larger predators.