Adirondack Sportswoman: Vernal Visitors
I crept along through the woods, at a snail’s pace, or, I should say salamander’s pace, my eyes glued in fascination to the ground. They were everywhere! I worried that if I would look up and step just once I’d flatten one of them. It was May of last year and the woods were dripping from the previous night’s rain. The forest floor was literally covered in fiery orange red efts, or red spotted newts!
Since becoming and Adirondacker, I’ve noticed these cute little guys, mostly in the spring, when everything is moist from all the rain. It’s hard to resist the urge to pick them up carefully, and exclaim over their cuteness. They can grow up to a few inches in length and have fiery orange bodies with red dots, outlined in black, all over their backs and sides. As a photography enthusiast, I love to shoot of these amazing critters, placing them on gray rocks and focusing on that beautiful contrast of color against a duller background. It’s great to zoom in on their little reptilian faces, capturing those large eyes located on either side of the head. They care little, as they continue to slowly make their way to wherever it is they are trying to get to.
Seeing these little guys in the woods and on the side of the road, I realized that I know very little about them. The red eft is only the middle or ‘teenage’ stage in the life of the eastern newt. This is also called their ‘land stage,’ which can last up to 3 to 4 years. They have three stages of life: the aquatic, the red eft or terrestrial juvenile stage, and the aquatic adult. When I saw the pictures of what they look like at each stage, I was surprised to discover that I’ve seen them at all three of these stages, and what I thought to be a variety of newts or salamanders are one and the same! Newts are actually a type of salamander. So it would be correct to say that all newts are salamanders but not all salamanders are newts.
Newts start out as tadpoles, developing a flat tale and legs and living in the pond they hatch in, looking like a mini version of the adult, mostly brown or olive in color. Two to five months later they crawl out and turn orange with red spots. Not only do they change coloring and design, but they lose their gills and develop lungs. I can’t help but wonder why? Why start out in water, leave for a few years to wander the forests, and then wander back to a pond to live out the rest of its days? They live quite a bit longer than one might think, the average life span being 12 to 15 years. Once they return to the water and reach their adult stage they turn a yellow-ish brown or olive color, retaining their red spots and growing up to five inches long.
Newts have no natural predators, since their skin secretes a poisonous substance when in danger or injured, so it’s no wonder we see so many; few fish or birds will want a piece of that. Their bright orange coloring on land and bright red spots in the water are a warning to stay away.
Late winter to early springtime is their mating season, and this is when I see the adults swimming along the shores of bodies of water. The female newt will then lay over several hundred eggs, one at a time, on underwater plants. Many of the eggs never make it to hatching, and even as the newts progress through the various stages of life, there is a naturally high mortality rate. But those eggs that do hatch will do so in about a month or two. The red efts that wander on land for a few years will hibernate under rocks and logs during the winter, eating small insects and snails. Once they instinctively feel ready to return to the water, they will eat anything from insects, worms, small crayfish, snails, tadpoles, amphibian eggs and fish eggs.
One last interesting fact: adult eastern newts have four toes on their front feet and five toes on their back feet. I start noticing the tadpole or adult newts in early spring along the edges of lakes and ponds. Just today I was jogging and the red efts were all along the sides of the road. I even managed to save a few that were foolishly in the middle busy lanes! This is just scratching the surface of learning about their amazing, complicated little lives. Read more for yourself ! Who ‘newt’ the kind of mysteries and neat little discoveries that await an adventurer, just off the beaten path or along the side of the road!