Credit: Kathleen Scavone
January’s rains brought out a bevy of newts. Rather, I should say an ‘armada’ of newts, as the collective noun is called! According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website, up until now, the newts have been undercover, hiding beneath stones, leaf matter, in crevices, and under stumps where they hibernate during the cold weather.
There are four species of newts in California. They are the California newt (Taricha torosa), red-bellied newt (Taricha rivularis), Sierra newt (Taricha sierrae) and the rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa). The species are similar in looks, but a careful study of their eyes or a stripe on their vent could help determine which it is.
I decided not to handle the critters since all four of the newt species protect themselves via a deadly neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin (TTX) which is 1,000 times stronger than cyanide. I understand that the TTX is only poisonous if I eat them, but still, I choose to admire the newts from afar. With TTX as its weapon against predation, along with its warning coloration of its red underbelly, garter snakes still attempt- and do survive making a meal of them.
Ever since evolution brought the changes of some form of lizards to snakes over 170 million years ago, certain snakes, like the garter snake of today, lucked out with a gene to keep them safe from the TTX in newts. But wait a minute. Not all garter snakes have evolved with this gene it seems. Studies by herpetologists show that toxic newts exist alongside garter snakes, and where no newts are found, those particular garter snakes do not possess the TTX immunity mutation, but instead would die if they dined on a newt! Go figure.
Newts love a riparian habitat rife with layers of leaves, mosses, mushrooms and more, and are found throughout the Pacific Northwest. They reside from Alaska in the north, south to Santa Cruz, California. A type of salamander, newts are masters of disguise, and initially hard to spot since they are brown on top and sometimes sit still amongst the leaf litter.
Once they commence their cute wiggle-walk, the bright orange-red hue of their underside – including legs, head, body and tail is evident and, like eyes adjusting to the dark, I begin to see more and more of the slithery little creatures. They possess four rubbery-appearing toes on their front feet and five on their back feet.
A little web search tells me why I’m seeing so many newts now. Males are vying for position in January and February to await the females of the species when they will transfer a chemical which holds a special attraction to the female. Next, in about a week, egg masses containing dozens of eggs can be seen at the edges of ponds. It then takes 20 days for newt larvae to emerge into the pond water. Along with snakes, the lives of newts can be hampered due to human encroachment in some areas, especially in cases where newts cross highways to reach aquatic sources to breed.
There is a lot to admire about this unassuming and mostly nocturnal amphibian, from their slow and stocky walk to their coloration, to their up to eight-inch size. Did you know that most newts, like lizards, can re-grow lost limbs, parts of their tails and ears? As if that wasn’t amazing enough, National Geographic’s website tells us that they can even regenerate hearts, spines and brains as well!