When you are contemplating an empty road and wondering what creature is likely to cross it, you probably think of chickens. You are misguided. The California newt is most likely to cross the road. As evidence, park rangers have to close key roads in Tilden Park, near Berkeley, CA, to improve newt safety.
So why do the newts cross the road? They cross to get to the pond on the other side. As winter rains begin in coastal California, the newts, actually called efts in their land-living stage, leave their homes under logs and rocks. They head to the ponds of their birth where they encounter a critical mass of other newts.
The male newts put their own amphibian spin on the term "lounge lizard," as they take on the newt format, trading rough skin and warts for more appealing smooth skin and long tails. Thus appealingly attired, they hang out in ponds and wait for females. I should be careful to note, as this is a serious website, that newts are not lizards but rather amphibians.
After some spring-like activity in the middle of winter, females lay eggs of Jello-like consistency. Each egg is around 2mm across, but there can be between 7 and 30 clumped together and attached to a twig, as shown in the photo below. Benefiting from the stability of the twig, the eggs float in the water. When we looked closely at the newt egg clump, we could actually see around 20 miniature newt larvae through the mucusy walls.
The baby larvae live in the watery nursery for varying lengths of time, depending on the water temperature and food availability. The pond that we saw on a recent newt walk hardly looked like a friendly nursery. The water was pale brown and soupy, and brittle grasses grew around the edge. In fact, an adult newt took approximately 5 minutes to climb over the grasses and travel one foot from where we placed him to the water's surface.
Apart from the fun facts related to newt reproduction, newt color is fascinating. Orange is not just a warning color for road signs. In the world of animals, the newt's bright orange belly sends a signal, "poison." Newt skin gives off a toxic substance, so if you handle one, you should wash your hands. The top, or dorsal, side of the newt's skin is brown, much like the color of the newt pond that we saw. Newts need muddy brown camouflage for privacy in their pond activities.
The final fascinating newt tidbit is that, if they do survive traffic conditions during a road crossing, they also can survive a moderate level of fire. These firewalkers can emerge unharmed from smoldering conditions. The liquid from their skin forms a protective barrier.
We observed newts on a toddler nature walk (almost a contradiction in terms, more like a mad scramble of unfocused toddlers running haphazardly toward a pond. Our daughter, of course, was up in front.) in Tilden Park outside Berkeley, CA. Within seconds, our trained guide was able to net a male newt from a target pond. Tossing concern about toxicity to the wind, the guide encouraged all of the kids and some interested adults (myself included) to touch a real newt. Our guide also located the fascinating egg blob photographed above.
February, that lovely Valentine's month, seems to be a high point for newt watching.
I have always liked newts and salamanders as they seem to be found in humble places such as muddy ponds, unassuming creeks or under logs. Now learning more about California newts in particular, I see them as a symbol of fire-walking, road-crossing courage.
The most famous quote involving newts embroils them along with fellow amphibians in a witches' brew. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, witches stir the "eye of newt" and "toe of frog" in a cauldron, a traditional symbol in Welsh and Scottish mythology of a place of magic.