Salamanders of the Morgan Arboretum

Welcome fellow salamander enthusiasts!

Some of you may already be familiar with our Twitter page (@MacSalamanders), if not, we are a group of four undergraduate students from McGill University (Montreal, QC) conducting a research project on salamanders. Salamanders and newts are amphibians within the Caudata order and belong to the Salamandridae family and Pleurodelinae subfamily, respectively [1]. Similar to frogs and lizards, salamanders have smooth and moist skin, however, newts have warty and dry skin; these characteristics are indicative of habitat and lifestyle [2]. Additionally, these vertebrates possess the ability, even in adulthood, to regenerate severed or shed limbs; this defense mechanism proves to be extremely useful against predators [3].

Blue-spotted salamander snuggling up to a red-backed salamander

Blue-spotted salamander snuggling up to a red-backed salamander

Indigenous to our data collecting zone (Morgan Arboretum, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC), the blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale) [4], the red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus) [5] and the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) [6] are our project’s study species. Blue-spotted salamanders are nocturnal creatures which breed in swamps and ponds during the spring allowing the eggs to be laid in water [7]. The red-backed salamanders, existing in two color phases (lead back or red/orange-striped back), typically breed in the fall and females lay their eggs on rotten logs [8]. The red-spotted newts breed in the water following extensive courtship displays. Interestingly, their skin contains toxins which have proven lethal to most of their predators [9]. Lastly, these salamanders are cold-blooded and must hibernate in order to survive during the colder seasons [10].

Habitat and Distribution

Salamanders can be found underneath rocks or logs in their terrestrial stage or at the bottom of streams or ponds in their aquatic stage [11].  The blue-spotted and red-back salamanders are only terrestrial so they can be found under rocks or logs whereas the red-spotted newt lays its eggs in their aquatic stage so they can be found at the bottom of streams or ponds as well as rocks and logs [12].

There are 21 species of salamanders located in Canada and 10 of those can be found in Quebec.  A few factors that affect the distribution of salamanders are habitat modification and climate change.  As a result, the amphibians of Canada suffer greatly from decreased precipitation and elevated temperatures during the summer [13].

Video: Red-backed salamander found beneath a rock from one of our data collection zones


Red-backed salamanders hunt large and nutritious arthropods like millipedes, fly larvae, beetle larvae, and spiders [14]. They do so by thrusting their tongues quickly to entrap prey and then bring it in their mouths. Since salamanders do not like dry conditions, they will hunt more actively after a rainfall or in conditions of high humidity. When the environment dries out, they will retreat back under logs and rocks in order to stay moist. Salamanders eat as much as they can in favorable conditions and store the extra food as fat which is burned when the salamanders catch less prey, allowing them to survive in more scarce conditions [15].

Importance to Ecosystems

The salamander is important in monitoring the wellbeing of an ecosystem. Because of their sensitivity to ecological changes, tracking the salamander population over time allows us to observe many other important factors of ecosystem wellbeing. This includes moisture cycling, the dynamics of the foodweb, succession, and general biodiversity. Because of their abundance and the relative ease at which they can be found, the salamander is often considered somewhat of a “canary in a coal mine”, and for this reason have much importance in their ecosystem [16].

Potential staring contest between two red-backed salamanders!

Potential staring contest between two red-backed salamanders!

Our Project

Research question – What environmental parameters (forest type, soil temperature, and preferred coverage) can be associated with the highest density of salamanders in the Morgan Arboretum?


For our research project, we sampled areas within deciduous forests, coniferous forests, and mixed forests.  We set up 10 meter by 10 meter quadrants where we would collect all our data.  We sampled each quadrant by starting in one corner of the collecting zone and moving outwards flipping over rocks and logs within that area searching for salamanders.

Part way through our data collection, we began to sample differently since in some quadrants 0 salamanders were found compared to other areas where we found close to 20.  To ensure we could collect data, we would first look under rocks and logs until we found a salamander.  Once we discovered a salamander, we set up our collecting zone around it.  This guaranteed a minimum of 1 salamander per quadrant.

Problems Faced

Over the course of our data collection period, we encountered several obstacles we had to work around in order to ensure the accuracy of our data. Our first hurdle occurred as we first ventured into the Morgan Arboretum: we hadn’t anticipated for the ground to be so covered with fallen leaves and other organic matter. As a result, it was much more difficult to locate salamanders as opposed to just a few weeks prior, when all the leaves were still on the trees. We adjusted our methods to include a “sweeping” step, where we temporarily cleared the leaf cover off the areas we were sampling to ensure that no rock or log went unturned.

Baby red-backed salamander hiding within the fallen leaves

Baby red-backed salamander hiding within the fallen leaves

We soon found that without a proper protocol in place, it was possible for different team members to find the same salamander at different times, but count it as two separate specimens. To prevent overcounting, we established a system where whenever one team member found a salamander, we would all converge to record data and take note of where exactly it was found. We also took photos of each salamander and where it was found for our own reference.

Another challenge we faced was that we were sometimes not physically strong enough to flip over a large log or a rock. This created the possibility of undercounting the population, as it was still possible for salamanders to be hiding under these bigger objects. Unfortunately, we had no way of countering this obstacle with our equipment at hand. Instead, we will keep this in mind when we complete our data analysis, and evaluate how this could affect our final result.



  1. Koremiak DA, Govardovskii VI: [Photoreceptors and visual pigments in three species of newts]. Zhurnal evoliutsionnoi biokhimii i fiziologii 2013, 49(4):264-271.
  2. Amphibians; Salamander and Newt [http://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/salamander-newt]
  3. McCusker CD, Gardiner DM: Understanding positional cues in salamander limb regeneration: implications for optimizing cell-based regenerative therapies. Disease models & mechanisms 2014, 7(6):593-599.
  4. Noël S, Labonté P, Lapointe FJ: Genomotype frequencies and genetic diversity in urban and protected populations of blue-spotted salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) and related unisexuals. Journal of Herpetology 2011, 45(3):294-299.
  5. Moore JD: Short-term effect of forest liming on eastern red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus). Forest Ecology and Management 2014, 318:270-273.
  6. Strain GF, Turk PJ, Anderson JT: Functional equivalency of created and natural wetlands: diet composition of red-spotted newts (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens). Wetlands Ecology and Management 2014.
  7. Blue-spotter Salamander (Ambystoma laterale) [http://www.ontarionature.org/protect/species/reptiles_and_amphibians/blue-spotted_salamander.php]
  8. Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) [http://www.ontarionature.org/protect/species/reptiles_and_amphibians/eastern_red-backed_salamander.php]
  9. Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens) [http://www.ontarionature.org/protect/species/reptiles_and_amphibians/eastern_newt.php]
  10. Salamander [http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/salamander/ ]
  11. Hawkins CP, Murphy ML, Anderson NH, Wilzbach MA: Density of Fish and Salamanders in Relation to Riparian Canopy and Physical Habitat in Streams of the Northwestern United States. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 1983, 40(8):1173-1185.
  12. Kristin P, Gvozdik L: Aquatic-to-terrestrial habitat shift reduces energy expenditure in newts. Journal of experimental zoology Part A, Ecological genetics and physiology 2014, 321(4):183-188.
  13. Alford RA, Richards SJ: GLOBAL AMPHIBIAN DECLINES: A Problem in Applied Ecology. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 1999, 30(1):133-165.
  14. Wyman RL: Experimental assessment of salamanders as predators of detrital food webs: effects on invertebrates, decomposition and the carbon cycle. Biodiversity & Conservation 1998, 7(5):641-650.
  15. Plethodon cinereus [http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Plethodon_cinereus/]
  16. Welsh HH, Droege S: A case for using plethodontid salamanders for monitoring biodiversity and ecosystem integrity of North American forests. Conservation Biology 2001, 15(3):558-569.




About Crystal Ernst

Hakai Institute postdoctoral scholar at Simon Fraser University (B.C.)

9 comments on “Salamanders of the Morgan Arboretum

  1. Cool! this is awesome!

  2. Awesome read! How many did you find in total?

    • Thanks Jeremie! After 3 data-collecting labs (about 3 1/2 hours each), we found 65 red-backed salamanders and 5 blue-spotted salamanders!

  3. Fascinating! I didn’t realize so many species of salamanders could be found in Quebec. What’s the northern limits of salamanders? Do you know what causes this limit? I assume it’s some physiological limit, related to cold winter temperatures… but I don’t know for sure.

    • Thanks for the questions! To address your first question, there have been populations of red backed salamanders found almost as far north as Sept-Iles. There are very few populations this far north, and we assume they are very small, but they exist nonetheless. As for your question about what causes this northern boundary, we could not find one single factor that affects this distribution. It is found however that north of Sept-Iles, permafrost patches can be found during the winter. The soil seems to be very cold up there and salamanders cannot survive the winters in permafrost. So that seems to be the best explanation!

  4. I was curious, did you still sample coniferous and deciduous forest? Or did you stick to the areas where you found the salamanders? If you did sample in the coniferous forest how many did you find?

    • We did in fact look in coniferous forests along with deciduous and mixed. When we sampled the coniferous and the mixed forests we did not find a single salamander. There was no suitable habitat for the salamanders in these forests. The ground was too dry and there weren’t many rocks and decaying logs. So after we sampled both of these, we adapted our research question to just sampling in deciduous forests.

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