Small wonder so many salamanders are active at this time of year, seeking last suppers of grubs and spiders, crickets and millipedes.
On moist autumn nights salamanders emerge from their hiding places – rocky fissures, mouldering logs, mole runways – to look for insects and other invertebrates on the forest floor.
On October 4 last year, my friends and I were thrilled to find three species crawling among fallen leaves. Though quiet and unassuming, salamanders are among the most fascinating of creatures. Take, for example, the numerous red-backed salamanders we saw on this evening.
Though they are land-dwelling vertebrates, red-backed salamanders don’t have lungs. Instead, they absorb oxygen through their skin. This odd method of respiration explains why red-backed salamanders only walk the world on humid nights. Their skin needs to be moist to allow oxygen to diffuse into their bodies.
I was reminded of another exceptional characteristic of red-backed salamanders when we found a tailless individual. Red-backed salamanders, like some lizards, lose their tails easily when attacked. Predators fixate on the squirming appendages while the newly tailless salamanders make good their getaways.
Another salamander we found was a red eft, the land-dwelling stage of a red-spotted newt. Unlike red-backed salamanders, red efts need not sacrifice their tails to avoid being eaten. They are poisonous, their tissues laced with the same neuro-toxin that makes the human consumption of puffer fish such a perilous affair.
We also found two glorious yellow-spotted salamanders. One, freshly transformed from its aquatic larval state, was taking its first steps in the wide forested world surrounding its natal pond. For small animals, spotted salamanders lead remarkably long lives. With luck, the little salamander we observed will have a quarter century to explore the nooks and crannies of its woodland home.
Small wonder so many salamanders are active at this time of year, seeking last suppers of grubs and spiders, crickets and millipedes. Soon winter will force them underground, where they will be confined for months beneath a mantle of frozen earth.