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Signs of Spring: Red Efts on the Move

The red eft phase of an eastern newt. Photo © Shelby Perry

One of the most iconic amphibian species of spring in the Northeast is the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), which is also called a red eft during its terrestrial adolescent phase.  On rainy spring nights they can seem to fall from the sky, suddenly carpeting areas where they have been absent for months, crawling from the wooded hillsides to the ponds, pools, and swamps where they breed and lay their eggs.

Most salamanders native to the northeast are very elusive, living most of their lives underground or beneath rotting logs along the muddy banks of streams.  Newts on the other hand live much of their lives right before our eyes.  They begin their lives as aquatic larvae in ponds and vernal pools.  These larvae mature throughout their first summer, eventually shedding their gills and emerging from the pools before winter sets in as red efts.

During this adolescent phase of their life they take on a brilliant orange color and roam the woods for anywhere from two to seven years, hunting small bugs and other terrestrial invertebrates.  Red efts move slowly on the ground, but toxic skin secretions protect them from most predators.  Like many other brightly colored animals, the flashy orange color is a warning.

At some point, though it is not well understood why, a red eft will cease its wandering and transition into an adult aquatic phase and finish their life in a pond or lake.  This transition means many changes for these little amphibians – their brilliant orange fades to a dusky yellow-brown, they begin breathing with gills instead of lungs, and they shift their diet and from land bugs to water bugs.  Throughout all of this change though they maintain the red spots along their back, and these are a reliable field mark for identifying a red-spotted newt.

Adult aquatic phase of an eastern newt, note the ever present red spots on its back. By Brian Gratwicke (Redspotted newt) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Newts can live for up to 15 years, but most of them don’t make it past their first winter.  Though their poisonous skin helps protect them from potential predators, it is also incredibly porous and they are sensitive to many environmental hazards and can even be harmed by lotions or insect repellent on the hands of well-meaning humans.  If you see a newt on the move try not to touch it unless you are sure your hands are free from chemicals.  Road crossings are also treacherous for newts; their slow pace combined with the heat and sun of the roadway can make the crossing dangerous even without a passing car.  Chemical herbicides often used on roadsides add another hazard for wandering newts.

Hardy, yet sensitive, these tiny predators require forested habitat close to water and do best when this habitat is unfragmented and they have room to roam safely.  We often draw upon images of wide-ranging carnivores, such as lynx or mountain lions when communicating the value of connected wild lands, but we should not forget the noble newt, a tiny yet quintessential denizen of northeastern wilderness.

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Comments

  1. Marisa Riggi says:

    Great article!

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