Eastern Red-backed Salamander Monitoring Project
Fresh Pond Reservation

Eastern red-backed salamanders are the most abundant vertebrates in northeastern forests with a biomass twice that of breeding birds. Due to this abundance and their position in the middle of the food web, red-backs are extremely ecologically important. Ground foraging birds, such as thrushes and wood warblers, small mammals, and reptiles all prey on red-backs. In addition, as top-level predators of invertebrates on the forest floor red-backs may play a role in regulating the rate of decomposition of leaf litter on the forest floor. By preying on the invertebrates that shred the leaf litter it is believed red-backs help to reduce the amount of surface area available to bacteria and fungi thereby indirectly reducing decomposition rates. Therefore, a healthy red-backed salamander population can lead to higher levels of carbon storage on the forest floor in the form of leaf litter. This has significant implications for the global carbon budget as it is estimated that ten times as much CO2 is released into the atmosphere through leaf litter decomposition as by any anthropogenic source.

In 2013 I will be conducting a study to investigate potential red-backed salamander populations at Fresh Pond Reservation. There are several goals for this monitoring project. The first is to determine whether salamanders are found at Fresh Pond and to learn more about their habitat preferences within the reservation. A second goal will be to compare potential salamander populations with populations at other sites including the Arnold Arboretum, Mount Auburn Cemetery, and woodlands throughout central Massachusetts. A third goal is to use this study as a way to teach the Friends of Fresh Pond and the general public about the ecological importance of red-backed salamanders. A final goal is to hopefully initiate a long-term monitoring project that will help to gauge the relative stability of this important organism at Fresh Pond Reservation.

On April 3rd, 2013 Elizabeth Wylde, Susan Coolidge, Deb Albenberg and I set out 24 - 12 inch by 18 inch untreated, rough-cut, eastern hemlock boards as artificial cover objects (ACOs). The use of ACOs is a common method used to monitor eastern red-backed salamanders as it limits the disturbance to natural cover and it standardizes sampling efforts. Eight ACOs were installed in three separate areas - the Woodland Restoration Project area or "the corner", Lusitania Woods, and the Eastern Hemlock stand in Kingsley Park. We set the ACOs along two parallel 90 foot transects spaced 30 feet apart. Along each transect ACOs were placed 30 feet apart resulting in four boards on each transect.

I will be monitoring ACOs roughly every two to three weeks throughout the spring, summer, and fall within 24 hours of a precipitation event. Red-backed salamanders are much more common on the surface of the forest floor when it is moist. When a red-backed salamander is encountered snout-to-vent length (SVL), total length, and weight will be recorded. Analysis of body condition can be accomplished by studying the relationship between SVL and weight of individuals in a population. In addition, this study will look at color morph ratios. Red-backed salamanders commonly occur in two color morphs - the lead-backed or unstriped morph and the red-backed or striped morph. Lead-backed morphs, which prefer warmer temperatures, are becoming more common throughout their range as average temperatures increase. Color morph ratios in Fresh Pond populations will be compared with populations at the Arnold Arboretum and Mount Auburn Cemetery as well as populations in central Massachusetts.

An email list of all members of the Friends of Fresh Pond who might be interested in joining me during monitoring will be compiled. I will send an email to this list to let everyone know when I will be headed out. If you are interested please send me an email at Also, if anyone is interested in learning more about the ecology of red-backed salamanders I will be presenting a talk entitled: Terrestrial Salamanders - Wolves of the Forest Floor to the Friends of Fresh Pond on Saturday May 4th from 1pm - 3pm at the Maynard Ecology Center. Immediately following the talk we will visit the three study sites at Fresh Pond. There will be an additional training session that will discuss the monitoring project at Fresh Pond as well some time this spring.

If anyone is interested in learning more about my past research on terrestrial salamanders I have included two links to papers I have written. The first is an article that was published in Arnoldia about a study I conducted at the Arnold Arboretum on red-backed salamanders:

The second is a paper I had published in Northeastern Naturalist about a study of red-backs at Harvard Forest:

I would like to thank Susan Coolidge for bringing the idea for this project to the Cambridge Water Department, and for all her help with getting the project initiated. I also want to thank Chip Norton, Manager of Watershed Protection, for his tremendous support and enthusiasm for this project. Thanks also to Elizabeth Wylde from the Friends of Fresh Pond for all her help getting the project set up, and to Deb Albenberg for her help setting out the cover boards.

Photos of Eastern Red-backed Salamanders
by Brooks Mathewson