Cute newt

Red-spotted Newt

In the last week or so I’ve managed to accumulate quite a backlog of potential post subjects. This is largely because I’ve been out looking at things, rather than sitting indoors in front of a computer, and with spring progressing there’s the potential for a lot of interesting observations. For the same reason that I’m getting lots of good stuff, I’m also falling behind on writing about it – it’s hard to write when you’re not at the computer! I rather suspect that a number of these subjects will be tucked away for safekeeping, to be pulled out at a future date when things aren’t coming quite so fast and furious, or when I’m stuck indoors and haven’t been out to observe much. Julie Zickefoose refers to a person who sequesters posts for lean times (such as herself) as a “blog ant”, referring to the ant’s habit of building a larder in the underground (think of the Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper). I’m probably more akin to a packrat than an ant – an ant, it would suggest, is discerning. My blogging habit more closely resembles my living habits, where I store things that may come in useful, and when I decide I need something I go back and look over my cache for something that might work.

None of that has anything to do with this post, of course. I’m not writing about packrats, or ants (although I do have some ant photos tucked away). Rather, today’s post is on salamanders, who I’m pretty sure don’t participate in caching behaviour. While visiting my parents this week, my mom and I went out to a local site where she often does pond study field outings with schoolgroups for a local non-profit. It’s a relatively small, but still nice pond, set in the woods back from the road. They usually scoop up some water or sediment and poke through it to see what they can find, learning about the aquatic environments in the meantime. So, to be prepared for what they might encounter, my mom wanted to scout the site and see what was happening.

Red-spotted Newt

Along with a handful of different invertebrate species, there were a couple species of frogs heard, and these guys. This is a Red-spotted Newt, a subspecies of the widespread Eastern Newt. A newt is actually a type of salamander, one belonging to the family Salamandridae. The Eastern Newt is the only representative of this family in North America, although they’re fairly widespread on other continents, primarily in the northern hemisphere. There are in fact 10 different families of salamanders, but the other ones we typically think of here in North America, such as the Jefferson’s or the Spotted, are mole salamanders, family Ambystomatidae. Most other salamander families aren’t differentiated by name the way the newts are, however.

Red-spotted Newt

The Red-spotted Newt inhabits still or slow-moving waters such as ponds or small streams. They generally prefer moist woodlands, with sufficient debris or submerged vegetation in the water to be able to hide under. The ones we saw were all doing that, they’d cruise languidly along in the warm surface waters (the water was less than a foot deep in the very gradually-sloping pond edges, so it was pretty much all surface water) but as soon as I made an attempt to come in with the net they’d dive under the leaf litter at the bottom. They never went very far, but they disappeared completely.

They eat aquatic insects and insect larvae, small molluscs and crustaceans, and even small frogs and tadpoles. They have an amazing lifespan – females can live up to 12 years in the wild, males up to 15. I suppose this difference could be due to the greater energy demands on a female in creating and laying eggs, versus the relatively energy-“cheap” effort of creating sperm. One study notes that female survivorship from year to year is generally lower than that of males, though a reason isn’t provided.

Red-spotted Newt

At just 7-10cm (2.5-4 in), they’re not large creatures. They also aren’t very difficult to catch, once you know how. I started out trying to catch them by surprise by swooping in quickly before they could dart away. Although I successfully got the first one this way, the drag of the net through the water reduced its speed to the point where speed was not the answer anymore; the salamanders were all easily able to dart off before the net reached them. Then I discovered that if you came in quite slowly, they would just sit there, and you could practically scoop them up without them moving.

Red Eft (Red-spotted Newt)

The species has three life stages. The first is as “larvae”, the salamander equivalent of a tadpole. Eggs are laid in the spring, and take about a month to hatch into young. These are gilled, and spend the next 2-3 months in the water hunting small aquatic prey. They hatch at less than a centimeter (less than 1/2″), but grow quickly; within a couple months they’ve reached nearly 4 centimeters (just under 2″). At this point they metamorphize into their second stage, pictured above.

The second stage is called a Red Eft, and is terrestrial. They can remain in this stage for as many as 4-7 years, depending on latitude and the richness of the local habitat. This is the most commonly seen stage of the species’ life history, likely because of the bright colouration and also their on-land habits. It is in this stage that dispersal takes place, with individuals undertaking long treks of 800m or more where they may encounter new ponds. While their olive-green back is useful for camouflage in the water, on land they have a different strategy. Newts in non-larval stages have toxic skin that is used as a deterrent to predators, but the skin of the efts is ten times more toxic than in the adults. Their bright orange colouration is a warning to creatures wanting to make a meal of them (this special warning colouration is termed “aposematic”).

Red Eft (Red-spotted Newt)

Of course, I didn’t know this at the time that I was looking at them, and I happily (though gently) picked them up to get a couple of side-on photos that better showed their faces and bellies than a top-down view of them sitting in the water. Fortunately, I suffered no ill effects from the encounter. The back is more toxic than the belly, and despite this defense, newts are often preyed upon; predators get around the toxicity by targeting the newt’s underside. The newts rely on a learned avoidance by predators, where young predators that attempt to take a newt for dinner will remember the distastefulness of it and not try any others. This may result in the loss of one newt, but the protection of many others. Some predator species have an innate avoidance of aposematically-coloured creatures.

Red-spotted Newt

The eft I caught was found in the water. This is an unusual spot for one, as they generally stick to the land, and it could be that it was preparing to metamorphize into the third life stage, the adult (perhaps resulting in a lowered toxicity level). Only the olive adults mate, which means that sexual maturity isn’t reached until often three or four years of age, or potentially up to seven or more if the efts metamorphize late. I wonder how old some of the newts I was looking at actually were.

Red-spotted Newts

The adults have an amazing homing ability, like that of homing pigeons. Displace a newt from familiar territory and it can still find its way back. It orients using magnetic fields, but also uses its sense of smell (to detect water) and sight (to orient against the sun) to guide it, although in experimental tests even newts with no smell or sight could successfully find water. Displaced newts will automatically orient downhill, which is reasonable, since water usually lies in the lower areas. I wouldn’t’ve thought that newts would find themselves displaced often enough to have needed to evolve such a complicated system.

I probably saw more salamanders in that single outing than I had in my life prior to that combined. They don’t occur in the ponds on my parents’ property (or, if they do, certainly not in great numbers like they were here, and don’t hang out in the open). I will admit to never having made a special outing to look for them before, either, though. As is the case with so many things, if you actually go looking for something, you can amaze yourself with how common it actually is.

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14 responses to “Cute newt

  1. I’ve had such a wonderful spring with salamanders–glad to see you’re finding some , too.
    And, I’m hoping to find them as they mature from the larvae I have now, to legged creatures.
    You’re so right about looking and finding–so much of what I “discover” has been there, waiting for me.

  2. Seabrooke,

    Your photos are remarkable. You and Nina could write an illustrated book. I haven’t had the honor of seeing salamanders yet. I wish to find them…

    Mary

  3. themarvelousinnature

    Nina: You’ve had excellent luck with them, and some species that I’d like to find eventually. Hope you’re able to track their growth, it would be pretty neat to see.

    Thanks, Mary. Well, as I discovered, it’s just a matter of looking in the right places! I bet there’s some lurking under the leaves in a pond near you.

  4. Pingback: Life under a rock « the Marvelous in nature

  5. E.g. and I found an eft on a Bruce Trail hike once. I used to go looking for Red-backed Salamanders when I was a kid in Grimsby, but I’d never seen an eft. At first I thought it was a cereal-box prize.

  6. themarvelousinnature

    They’re pretty surreal little amphibians, eh? I’ve seen just a couple, the most memorable being one I encountered in the undergrowth of a woodland plot in Ohio while doing vegetation surveys for a breeding bird project (I think it was the spot I was in that made it memorable more than the eft itself).

  7. Pingback: Look carefully « the Marvelous in nature

  8. My daughter and I just discovered our little cat tail pond has newts living in it. We caught some of the tiny tadpoles with gills and she is watching them grow. I assume they are newts, I recall finding one several years ago, but I have found a big black salamander with spots while digging a tree hole on my property as well. Maybe you could post some picures of the tadpoles ?

  9. themarvelousinnature

    Steve, you might try checking out Nina at Nature Remains. Earlier this spring she brought in some water from a vernal pool and has raised salamanders on her kitchen table. Check out these two links: one with photos of eggs, and the other with photos of the youngsters.

  10. Great shots, that’s a real cutie on your hand there. I’m a little surprised at some of the comments. We have newts here in the west, and I’m under the impression that all the newts are Salamandrids. The wikipedia article I was just reading also suggests that though one newt has enough toxin in its skin to kill a person, it has to be ingested or otherwise enter the body, skin contact isn’t enough to cause a problem. Good thing, I’ve been picking up newts for ages. The seem to like to come into my house during the summer, and if I don’t spot them and carry them back outside they end up dessicated in the back of closets.

    Van

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newt

  11. Hi, my name is Lily, i am 13 years old. I was walking down by a small creek ands i saw the Red-spotted Newt. I caught 2 of them and i wanted to know all about them. I looked at your blogand, it was better then science class and i learnd more too!!!!!!! You should write a book!.

    Thanks A Lot,
    Lily

  12. do newts have to live in water?
    saved from a drout and they were rubbery so i put them in water.they seemed to like it alot and i found eight almost dead so i put them in my pond

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