It is this time of year when the California newt is on the move. Adults are crawling out from under their rocks and heading toward the closest pond to find a mate. A great find on a February hike.
The rains have come and the ground is wet. Fungus and lichen grace the forest floor.
The winter rains of Northern California bring moist conditions to our parched land, filling up shallow meadows and ponds, providing perfect breeding grounds for the California newt.
There are 100 known species of newts in the world, found in North America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The California newt, Taricha torosa, is found only in California and is our most common newt.
Interesting info: californiaherps.com
This week, Athena saw a newt on one of our trails. One rainy night a few years ago, we found this pair in our yard.
They are sometimes mistaken for a lizard, but a newt is not a lizard. A lizard is a reptile; whereas a newt is an amphibian in the salamander family.
The newt has an impressive amphibian ability of living on land and water. They are semiaquatic, spending part of the year in water for reproduction, then living on land for the rest of the year.
Their permeable skin makes them reliant on cool, damp places like this.
Unless you scramble around in stream beds lifting up rocks, newts are not easy to find. They stay hidden most of their lives in moist environments, under logs and rocks. They are also quiet creatures. But at this time of year when the ground is wet and they are on their breeding trek, we are granted an occasional sighting.
The California newt is a small creature, ranging in length from 5 to 8 inches (13-20 cm). They have four short legs and move very slowly. If I didn’t know better, when I am watching one it seems like the whole world is in slow motion. One leg lifts…pauses mid-air…goes down…then another leg lifts…pauses mid-air…goes down.
Quite miraculously, they will travel on their short, sluggish legs up to 2.5 miles (4 km) to their breeding grounds.
Though the California newt moves slowly, it has few predators due to its toxic skin. It produces poisonous skin secretions, called tetrodotoxin, repelling most predators. This neurotoxin can cause death in most animals, including humans, if eaten.
One year we found this adult and eft (juvenile) in an underground well tank.
In nearby Berkeley, California, every year from November 1 to March 31, a main thoroughfare in Tilden Park is closed to vehicular traffic exclusively to protect the California newt. For 20 years the Park District has closed South Park Drive to allow newts a safe terrestrial journey as they march to their breeding grounds.
When the newts finally reach their aquatic breeding environment, mating occurs. Then, much like their their fellow amphibian the frog, the eggs stay in the water and a few weeks later the larvae hatch. Larvae undergo metamorphosis, developing legs and lungs. In this process, which takes about two weeks, their gills are no longer needed and are absorbed into the body. When they are fully metamorphosed, they leave the water and begin life on land.
So when we see a beautiful newt on the rainy forest floor, it is a marvel to behold. Tiny little legs on a mission to perpetuate their species. They can breathe under water and then on land. And though they are small creatures, they can kill just about anybody who dares to mess with them.
A tip of the hat to this amazing creature.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.