The crowd has worked themselves into a frenzy, convinced the lady they’ve cornered is a witch. John Cleese’s character provides the final bit of evidence. “She turned me into a newt.” The crowd is silenced, looking at his obvious non newt like condition………………..”I got better.”
Why do newts come to mind when witchcraft is parodied? Why is “eye of newt” an ingredient of nearly every potion? Newts were thought to have magical powers since they were sometimes observed walking out of fires. The truth is that newts, like many amphibians find shelter inside of logs and when those logs heat up in a campfire, they do all they can to escape a fiery demise, giving the impression they can survive in those conditions. This act has elevated them to mythological status in some cultures.
In California we have three species of newts, all in the genus Taricha. They occur in habitats near the pacific coast. The California newt is endemic, found in no other state. They range from San Diego County to Mendocino County. There are unverified reports of California newts in northern Baja California creeks. For the adventurous, there is a discovery to be made.
The rough skinned newt is the northern cousin of the California newt, ranging from Santa Cruz county north to Alaska. Their ranges overlap from just north of us up to Mendocino County. A third species is found in the Russian River drainage as well as coastal streams in southern Humboldt County. This is the Red-bellied Newt. I’ve yet to see this species, but plan on making an expedition into its range in the near future. Recently, a fourth species was split off from the California newt in the Sierra Nevada Range. This is the Sierra newt.
Our newts are differentiated from other salamanders by having a terrestrial life stage. During the summer and fall, their bodies become rough and granular. They live under logs, and within rock crevices. With the first fall rains, they leave the protection of cover and migrate up to two miles to the newly recharged creeks and streams. This migration can be very impressive. I remember counting 125 newts crossing the road as we drove a five mile stretch near Mt. Hamilton. I’ve been hiking on chamise covered ridgetops in Yolo County, pausing to catch my breath only to look down and see I was sharing the trail with a California newt, making his way to Cold Canyon Creek, hundreds of feet downslope.
When they arrive to their aquatic breeding habitat, their bodies change. Their rough skin becomes smooth their tail develops into a swimming fin. Males bodies change more than the females. The males arrive first to the breeding pools. When females arrive, they are mobbed by the waiting males. Together they form large balls of writhing newt bodies. Soon one male gets a firm grasp around the female. He produces a spermatophore which is picked up by the female with her cloaca. This sperm filled capsule fertilizes her eggs, which she lays among the vegetation of the pool. The larvae soon hatch and transform into young adults within 4 to 5 months
The breeding season is when newts are most often encountered by people. They are usually the most visible signs of life in a creek with their bright orange undersides and aforementioned promiscuous behavior. Often harassed and handled by children and less enlightened adults, they maintain their single mindedness and breed quite successfully in our State.
Newts emit a potent neurotoxin through skin glands. It is definitely a good idea to wash your hands after handling a newt. Do not rub your eyes, or you will suffer serious irritation. If ingested, a newt may kill you, so please don’t eat them.
Rough skinned newts and California newts look very similar. California newt’s lighter underside extends above their eyes. Rough skinned newts are dark around the eyes. When seen from above, California newt’s eyes bulge out beyond the edge of the head. Rough skin newt eyes do not.
Because newts require an aquatic larval stage, it is unlikely that they occur on the Reserve in significant numbers. They are capable of breeding in stock ponds and other impoundments, so it is not completely unreasonable to think they might be using our limited wetlands and guzzlers. I assume the most likely species in our area is the California newt, but we are so close to the range of Rough skinned newts, anything is possible.
At last we have received a little bit of rain in late January. This may be enough to awaken our amphibian fauna. Keep an eye out for newts and let me know what species you find and where. Finally, enjoy this video of newts enjoying a little bit of paradise in a remote part of Orange County, Black Star Canyon.