Red-backed salamanders (also called redback salamanders) are one of the most common salamander species in North America. They are often associated with decaying logs or leaf litter on the forest floor, where they spend most of their time hidden. At night, they leave their hiding spots to forage for food.
Like most salamanders, red-backed salamanders are obligate carnivores, which means they eat only animal protein. In the wild, they eat termites, ants, flies, mites spiders, worms, snails, and other small invertebrates. In captivity, pinhead crickets, wingless fruit flies, and small worms make up most of their diet.
Red-backed salamanders are different from most salamanders in that they do not have an aquatic larval stage. They hatch from eggs laid on land and live a fully terrestrial life for their entire life cycle.
When they first hatch, they eat ants, mites, and other small invertebrates they can catch and fit into their mouths. As they grow bigger, they can eat larger insects and other prey.
What Red-Backed Salamanders Eat in the Wild
Female red-backed salamanders lay eggs, usually in moist rotting logs, in chambers underground or under rocks. These eggs look somewhat like grape clusters and are suspended from the roof of the brooding chamber by a short strand.
After about 6 weeks, baby red-backed salamanders hatch from the eggs. These young are fully developed and look just like miniature versions of their mothers.
Over time, these young salamanders will grow bigger and transform into adults. Young and adult red-backed salamanders will have slightly different diets, mainly due to their different size.
What Baby Red-Backed Salamanders Eat in the Wild
Baby red-backed salamanders are tiny (about 3/4 inch when they hatch), so they can only eat tiny live prey that they can catch and fit into their mouths.
When they first hatch, they feed on:
- Springtails and other tiny invertebrates
As they grow in size, they can eat slightly larger prey:
- Small worms
- Baby slugs, snails
- Crane flies and other small insects
Baby red-backed salamanders are not very picky eaters and will eat almost any prey that’s small enough to fit into their mouths.
What Adult Red-Backed Salamanders Eat in the Wild
Adult red-backed salamanders are fully grown, meaning they have bigger mouths and stronger jaws. This means they can eat larger prey.
Like the babies, they are not very picky eaters and will eat almost prey they can catch and fit into their mouths. However, they generally like to eat live, moving prey over dead prey items.
Here’s a list of things that would make up an adult red-backed salamanders diet in the wild:
- Termites, ants, crane flies, small fruit flies
- Woodlice, mites, springtails,
- Small spiders, centipedes, millipedes, small beetles
- Small slugs, snails, snails & slug eggs
- Small worms and other invertebrates such as moth larvae.
For this reason, they will only eat prey that’s small enough for them to swallow whole. This means they will avoid large insects or worms.
What Adult Red-Backed Salamanders Eat In Captivity
Captive red-backed salamanders can eat all the food they would eat in the wild. The only reason they have a different diet is that most people cannot easily obtain the wide variety of prey these salamanders eat in the wild. So they are limited only to the food they can purchase in a pet store or culture on their own.
Here’s a list of things that red-backed salamanders eat in captivity:
- Pinhead crickets, newly hatched roaches, small flightless fruitflies
- Termites, dwarf white Isopods, springtails
- Black soldier fly larvae, small mealworms
- White worms, blackworms, bloodworms, small earthworms
Some individual salamanders may also readily accept chopped earthworms, chopped mealworms, and other freshly dead prey. However, red-backs generally like to hunt moving prey, so it’s best to offer live prey items.
These prey items can be purchased in a pet store, online, or even from another hobbyist. Most pet shops that sell fish also sell live worms.
Alternatively, you could culture feeder insects at home if you are up for the challenge.
Also, you could feed your salamander wild-caught bugs, just make sure they are from an area that’s clean and free of pesticides or other chemicals.
Mineral & Vitamin Supplements
Captive-bred feeder insects are often raised on a cost-conscious diet that is meant to help them grow quickly. This means they are not as nutritious as wild insects that eat a wide variety of vitamin and mineral-rich food.
If your salamander is given a low nutrient diet, it could develop several health problems. For this reason, it is important to increase the nutritional value of the food you give to your salamander.
This is mainly done in two ways: dusting, and gut loading.
Gut loading is the process by which an animal’s prey is fed nutritious foods at least 48 hours before it is fed to the animal. The intention is to pass those nutrients on to the animal for which the prey is intended.
In this context, you want to give your crickets, or other feeder insects, fresh fruits and vegetables (such as spinach or carrots) that are rich in vitamins and minerals.
After eating this nutritious food, the insects will pass the nutrients on to the salamander when they are eaten.
Besides gut loading, another way to ensure your red-backed salamander gets all the vitamins and minerals it needs is by dusting its food with calcium and vitamin supplements.
Most salamander owners use a commercially manufactured supplement powder.
The process is simple:
- First, add a small pinch of supplement powder into a small container such as a cup or an empty cereal container. The powder should only be enough to lightly dust the insects.
- Place one feedings worth of feeder insects in the container
- Gently shake the container so the supplements lightly coat the insects
- Once finished, you can offer the dusted insects to your salamander
It is important to know what calcium formula is right for your pet, whether it be no D3, low D3, or high D3. If your salamander gets UVB from a light source, low D or no D is usually the best. However, if your salamander doesn’t have a UVB light source, high D is preferable.
How Much & How Often to Feed Your Red-Backed Salamander
Red-backed salamanders need to be fed about two to three times a week. However, as ectothermic (cold-blooded) animals, the temperature will influence the feeding frequency.
They will generally have an increased appetite at higher temperatures and a reduced appetite when the temperatures are lower.
Regarding how much to feed your salamander, the general rule is to only offer it as much as it can eat in a single feeding session.
Most salamanders will stop eating when they have had their fill, so this can be learned with a little bit of experimentation. Use personal judgment to ensure most of the food offered is being consumed.
Also, switch up prey items every few feedings to give your salamander a varied diet.
How to Feed a Red-Backed Salamander
The easiest way to feed a salamander is to simply dump the food into an exposed area of its enclosure. When the salamander sees the prey moving, it will hunt and eat it, just like it would in the wild.
However, some salamanders, especially those that are still getting used to a new place may be shy and reluctant to eat. In this case, you could entice the salamander to eat with the use of some tweezers.
Use the tweezers to gently hold the food item, then rub it near the nose of the salamander. Once he sees it, he will grab and eat it.
What Baby Red-Backed Salamanders Eat In Captivity
Captive baby red-backed salamanders are aggressive predators. Like those in the wild, they prefer to eat moving prey, this means they have to be fed tiny live food. The appropriate size will depend on the size and age of the baby salamander.
When they first hatch, they can be fed:
- Tiny ants
- Tiny insects and other readily available, suitably sized live foods.
As they grow larger, they can eat larger prey such as:
- Small worms
- Baby slugs, snails
- Tiny insects
The larger they grow, the larger the size of prey they can eat. Eventually, these young salamanders will grow large enough to be able to have a diet very similar to that of the adults.
Why Isn’t My Red-Backed Salamander Eating?
- The Prey Item Being Offered Is Too Big
The first reason a red-backed salamander may reject food is that the prey item you are offering is just too big. Remember, salamanders do not chew their food, so they will not eat anything they can now swallow whole.
If you offer your red-backed salamander an excessively large worm or insect, it most likely won’t even attempt to eat it. As a general guide, never offer a salamander any prey larger than the width of its head.
- It Is Not Accustomed to the Food Item Being Offered
Another possible reason a red-backed salamander may reject food is that it is not used to eating the food you are offering. Try switching the food item being offered. Most salamanders will readily accept worms and crickets.
- It Is Still Getting Used to a New Place and Is Shy
Sometimes, a salamander may not eat because it is under stress or getting used to a new place. This is a very common problem among new salamanders.
To remedy this, try moving the salamander to a dark room, and leave it alone to relax and settle down for a while. In the wild, salamanders are nocturnal creatures, so they will be more active in the dark.
- The Environmental Temperatures Are Low
A fourth possible reason for a salamander may be the temperature. Remember, salamanders are ectothermic animals. When the temperatures are low, they will have a lower rate of metabolism, and be less active, so they won’t have the biggest appetite.
This is perfectly normal, and the salamander will have a much better appetite with an increase in the temperature.
Common Feeding Mistakes
There are a few common mistakes many new salamander owners make when feeding their pets.
Forgetting to Gut Load Feeder Insects
Captive salamanders have a diet that is very limited in comparison to that of wild salamanders. This means they do not get a wide variety of nutrients from different food sources.
Also, as earlier mentioned, captive-raised feeder insects are often given poor diets, so they aren’t as nutritious as wild insects.
If you do not dust or gut load feeder insects, your salamander will not get all the nutrients it needs and may develop health problems.
Using Wrong Sized Insects
Remember, salamander do not chew their food. If you offer a tiny red-back salamander a full-grown cricket, it most likely won’t eat it.
However, if it does attempt to eat it, it may get injured or choke in the process. Never offer a salamander any prey item larger than the width of its head.
Salamanders have huge appetites. In the wild, food is not very easy to come by. However, in captivity, they have a seemingly endless supply of food. This means obesity becomes a real possibility.
Overfeeding can lead to obesity which could, in turn, lead to the salamander developing health problems.
On the other end, underfeeding means your salamander will not get all the nutrition it needs which will most likely have poor health.
Red-backed salamanders are not very picky eaters. They have huge appetites and will eat almost any prey they can catch and swallow whole.
Although not a particularly popular pet, they are relatively easy to care for. In the wild, they seem to really love eating termites, ants, and spiders. As pets, they can be fed springtails, white worms, and a wide variety of other appropriately sized foods.
Just remember to dust or gut load feeder prey so your salamander gets a nutritious diet and grows strong and healthy!