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  • Writer's picturePam Owen

The saga of a little lead-back

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

In the middle of May, I picked up my dog’s outside water dish and found a tiny salamander under it. The little herp was the color of lead, with white dots sprinkled on its top and sides. Much earlier in the spring, I had found an Eastern Red-backed Salamander and a slug under the dish, so I was a bit confused about which salamander species this might be.

In doing some research, I found that the Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus), one of the first salamanders I encountered as a child, comes in more than one color. Its species name, cinereus, is Latin for "ash colored," which refers to the dorsal coloration of the lead-back morph—the one I had found. While the main morphs (phenotypes) of P. cenereus are the red-backed and the lead-back, it has six other color variations, as the Amphibia-Nature website shows.

Most adult Eastern Rd-backs are 2.25–4 inches long, excluding the tail; the largest on record for Virginia was 5 inches, according to the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service. The one I found was apparently a juvenile, a mere 1.5 inches long, including the tail.

A tiny lead-back morph of the Red-backed Salamander
This tiny (about 1.5 inches, including tail) salamander is a "lead-back" morph of the common Red-backed Salamander.

I put on some latex gloves, to keep from spreading any bacteria I might be carrying to the lead-back, and took a few photos, then put it back under the water dish. It’s easy to see why salamanders and slugs often take up residence there. I keep the dish in the shade of the porch, and the water keeps the temperature under the dish fairly constant. Condensation tends to form on the underside of the dish, keeping the ground below damp, the preferred condition for these species. And there are enough small gaps between the dish and the ground that they can come and go as they please and so their prey—small invertebrates—can also into their lair.

A few days later, my landlord was getting ready to mow, so I picked up the dish to get it out of his way. I checked the ground underneath to see if the little salamander was still there, but I didn’t see it. I set the dish, which has a rubber ring covering the rim of the base, up on my porch railing and went for a walk with my dog.

When I came back, the mowing was done, so I picked up the dish and put it back where it had been. I puttered around doing some outside chores before heading back in. As I up the porch steps, I found the little salamander staring down at me from the porch railing. It must have been up above the dish's collar, dropping off on the railing when I moved the dish there. I imagine it was pretty confused. The day was cool and damp, so that may have hindered its movement. I took a few photos of it, then put it back under the dish.

A lead-back morph of the Red-backed Salamander on a porch railing
Lead-back on porch railing, probably wondering how it got there

A couple of days later, I needed to clean out the water dish, and as I picked it up, I was half hoping the little lead-back was still under it. The tiny salamander wasn’t on the ground beneath it, and remembering what happened the last time I’d picked up the dish, I checked on its underside and around the rubber collar, but no lead-back, just a couple of slugs. I hope it found a more-stable environment nearby, perhaps under the can I use for wood-stove ashes, another favorite habitat of some salamanders.

© 2020 Pam Owen


Adventures in Nature

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