Nature Notes: Mysterious Disappearance

I came to know of this wonderful little creature by serendipity

   Something is happening. Our most common creepy-crawling amphibian, the red-backed salamander, Plethodon cinereus, is beginning to go missing.
    I just got back from a five-mile hike along the woodland trails maintained by the Southampton Trails Preservation Society in the outbacks of Bridgehampton, Noyac, North Sea, and Water Mill. I looked under lots of fallen limbs and tree trunks, but could not find a single salamander. In the past, you could usually find one or two under any fallen tree bole, old board, or brick-sized rock in any of our local woodlands, especially those with an ample covering of leaf litter.
    For some unknown reason they are becoming few and far between.
    This little three-inch long salamander can be mistaken for a newt, especially the reddish colored juvenile that lives upland, not in the water. On the South Fork almost every one is grayish, thus the local name “lead-back.” On the North Fork where I grew up, they are dark red on top with a dark stripe down each side of the body running head to tail. Males and females are almost indistinguishable.
    Perhaps their most peculiar characteristic is the absence of lungs. They breathe through the moist skin of their mouths inside and out. Remove one from its moist environment and it’s a surefire goner unless kept wet. Unlike the other Long Island salamanders, the female redback doesn’t go to water to breed, she merely lays four or more eggs under a log or in a burrow, then stays around to guard them until they hatch. The hatchlings are just like their parents, only much, much smaller.
    I came to know of this wonderful little creature by serendipity.
    During World War II, we preteens were into digging foxholes and building makeshift forts. We fought each other with play guns. One of these foxholes came in handy. I was 9. My little gang of three had a hut in Mattituck’s pitch pine and oak woods close to Mattituck Creek. We got word beforehand that a larger gang led by the Presbyterian minister’s son was going to raid us. They were older, bigger, and three times as many. So rather than defend our hut, we hid in a foxhole 100 feet away covered with thatch and leaves that somewhat matched the forest floor. They came. They wrecked the hut in an hour’s worth of banging and bashing. During lulls in the banging we could plainly hear their loud voices threatening what they would do to us if they caught us. They were dissing us as cowards for not showing up and defending our turf.
After an hour or so, they departed and we climbed out of our hole. I chanced to look down to see that we didn’t leave anything behind and saw what looked like a big earthworm on the dirt bottom, except that it had legs. I climbed down and caught it. It was my first run-in with a red-backed salamander. I took it home and my father said it was probably a newt. It was several years later that I came to know it by its proper common name, and later by its scientific name.
    It’s only lately that I have begun to worry about it, especially in view of the world’s diminishing populations of this and that amphibian and, locally, the disappearance altogether of the southern leopard frog. It is probably not insecticides, as they are no longer applied in deep woods.
    Several possibilities come to mind. Firstly, the red-backed salamander doesn’t take kindly to acidic environments. For the last 50 or more years our rains have become increasingly acidic as their droplets contain residues of sulphuric, nitric, and other acids gleaned from factory smoke and vehicle exhaust. Fish and aquatic insects suffer the consequences of acid rain, why not salamanders? Secondly, the opening of the hardwood forests by gypsy moth caterpillars and inchworms in the first years of the new millennium allowed the upper soil layers and leaf litter covering them to dry out, not good for organisms that breathe through their skin. The most likely scenario in my mind, however, is the rise in numbers of the wild turkey, first introduced on the South Fork in the winter of 1992.
    You may have noticed on your woodland walks how turkeys completely tear up the leaf litter searching for this and that thing to eat. They eat any number of slugs, snails, earthworms, insects, spiders, and salamanders, as well as acorns that they happen to find on the forest floor during their ravagings. They are not gourmets.
    On the other hand, the demise of the redback might be more mysterious. Could it be radioactivity drifting here from Asia? Could it have something to do with Plum Island, much blamed for environmental maladies such as tick diseases and red and brown tides that strike us on eastern Long Island? According to James Gibbs and the five other authors of “The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State,” issued in 2007, the red-backed salamander is probably the most common salamander in New York State and, possibly, the entire Northeast. Let’s see if it will make a comeback.