Wednesday 23 October 2013

Eastern Newt

Image: Ken-ichi Ueda
Notophthalmus viridescens
The Eastern Newt spends most its life not being orange. Which must be why it's so very orange while it has the chance.

Having just finished reading War with the Newts for the (post-apocalyptic) book club I recently joined, I felt it was about time we took a gander at a newt. Preferably one that probably won't destroy land masses in order to provide more coastlines to support their ever growing population.

Image: cotinis
So I chose an orange one. Because cute, little orange things never hurt anyone.

To be more specific, this is the stage in the newt lifecycle where it's known as an "eft". Efts are terrestrial, and clamber around in damp leaf litter stopping to feast on slugs and insects as they journey far and wide to ensure the entire population of Eastern Newts isn't trapped in a single pond.

Image: Janet
Of course, the little efts aren't thinking about anything so grand as the population dynamics of their species. They just want to escape the confines of their parent's pond, see the world, learn about themselves, be enlightened and embark on a spiritual journey of self-discovery.

Image: Dave Huth
Who knows what may lay beyond that stone, over that fallen log or under that dead leaf...

This adventurous spirit has served its purpose admirably, and the Eastern Newt is now common throughout the eastern half of the United States. With such a large range it's no surprise that there are several subspecies, including the Peninsular Newt of Florida which usually skips the orange eft stage altogether. For shame! So much orange could have been yours!

Image: Michael Righi
After hatching from their eggs, Eastern Newts start out life as aquatic larvae. They're tadpoles, but much longer and slimmer than the usual frog tadpole we think about. They also bear four thin legs and a set of feathery gills. At this tender age their skin is a kind of green-brown-olive colour, with scant evidence of the exuberance that will soon follow.

After a few months of ravenously consuming as many aquatic invertebrates as they can, the tadpoles metamorphose into teenagers. Their gills are absorbed and traded in for a set of lungs. Their spindly limbs get thicker and stronger. Their skin becomes much more poisonous, a little dryer and rougher and very, very orange.

Video: islandside

And off they go, waddling through the forest with adorably slow, careful steps. They'll spend two or three years on terra firma, growing about 3 to 8 cm (1 to 3 in) long

Image: Josh More
When the orange stage comes to an end, the efts return to ponds and streams in the forest and metamorphose into adults. They'll be about 6 to 14 cm (2.5 to 5.5 in) long and back to the brown-green-olive colour of their infancy. On their back, rows of red spots with black borders are the only clue left of their colourful past, like a conservative politician who occasionally calls his friends "comrade" at private functions.

If nothing too terrible happens, they can live for another 10 years!

Image: Todd Pierson
The male's sexy legs
Being adults, they must soon get to work. The male has longer hind legs than the female and, in the Spring, those legs acquire tough, keratinised "nuptial excrescences", a polite way of saying "sexy nastiness".

Video: gingingray

The male uses these to grab hold of the female behind her neck. He then strokes her with his snout and forelimbs while fluttering his tail to waft exciting pheromones to her nose. They can go on like this for minutes or hours, after which he'll release her. If he was good enough, she'll nudge his tail and the lucky chap will drop a spermatophore for her to pick up. If not, she'll simply wander away.

Females lay only a few eggs per day, scattered among underwater plants. She'll lay a total of 200 to 400 of them over the course of several weeks and then get on with her life, leaving them to hatch after a month or two.

Image: squamatologist
I don't know...

I can't help but think that if you knew your children were going to turn quite so incredibly orange, you would want to sit there and watch it happen. Weird the things you just get used to.


TexWisGirl said...

sexy nastiness. ha ha! :)

they're pretty long livers!

Syeda Rafiya Shehnaz Urdu High school Daulatabad said...

" They just look like made of plastic, probably "Made in China", really they are beautiful, but i think they might be quite poisonous."

Lear's Fool said...

That's really cool. Orange+poison = travel duds!

Joseph JG said...

@TexWisGirl: :)

Yeah, it's surprising how long they live for.

@Ishrat: Haha! You're right! They look like little toys. Hopefully they'd be less poisonous if they really were made of plastic!

@Lear's Fool: Orange and poison sounds good for bear country. Hopefully we could teach them about the dangers of orange without anyone having to get eaten!

Unknown said...

Supposedly these things are common in PA but I've yet to see one. I've caught and released a ring-neck snake which loves to eat the newts as it is immune to the poison and is mildly venomous itself. Found lots of newt eggs in the same area and swiped my net in some of the cooler water but found nothing. Also found the slugs they love to eat all over. Just can't find a newt or eft or any of its life stages. Some day...

Joseph JG said...

What a mystery! It's almost as if they can see you coming...