Saturday, February 7, 2009

California Newts

Sometime in the middle of February last year - while driving around Pine Flat Reservoir above Fresno, California I took a detour along Big Creek Road looking for a good place to find aquatic insects.

It had rained a good deal during the last couple of days and the stream was high. I found a number of small pools by the bank that had been left after the high water receded. I went looking for diving beetles. Instead, I found a number of California newts. They were out in force and paid me absolutely no attention at all.

In one pool there were four. I watched these for some time. They were a deep orange brown above with pale legs and eyelids. Underneath they were a bright orange. Their tails were flattened laterally for swimming and their eyes were white with a black band across the middle. They ranged in size from six to eight inches and practically skipped in slow motion along the bottom of the shallow pools.

The water was cool – almost cold. It was, after all, the end of winter and snow was still lining the banks not too far upstream. But this didn’t seem to bother the newts at all. I first thought they were out looking for food since the rain had stopped but I was soon proven wrong. They were out looking for mates and late winter after a rainstorm was an opportune time.

A bird will occasionally eat a California newt, but only once, before it dies from poisoning. Mallards, western grebes, great horned owls and the unwitting domestic fowl are all on record for having expired with a toxic newt in their gullets

The newts’ skin secretes the same non-protein toxin (known as tetrodotoxin) as the puffer fish of voodoo fame. For the hapless bird that measures its weight in ounces, the dose acquired from a single newt can be mortal in minutes. The garter snake, on the other hand, has developed immunity to the poison. It can eat a number of newts and only experience a bit of a buzz. Fortunately for the amphibians, forty degrees in February is not their favorite time to be out.

I had not been watching them more than a minute when one average-sized individual tentatively grabbed a larger one around the mid section and then paused to see how things would go. Apparently things didn’t go so well because both decided to part company rather abruptly. This was done by swinging their long tails back and forth to propel themselves in separate directions. It was obvious that when they wanted to move fast, they swam instead of walked.

In an adjacent pool (holding maybe five gallons of water) I discovered seven other newts. They didn’t seem to mind being in such close quarters except for one individual. He was curled up in a ball holding a female newt. A smaller newt was all tied up with them and it was hard to tell where one ended and another began.

As I watched more closely, I could tell that this was quite an event in the lives of these animals. Slowly the stronger male managed to move his long tail between his intended mate and the intruder and push him away. But this was only partially successful. His opponent had its front legs tightly wrapped around the tail of the female newt with its hands clasped together on the other side. It took a lot of shaking to get it off.

When the strong male was finally alone with his mate, he quickly pulled her up to the surface and gulped down a mouthful of air. Such a struggle, no doubt, used up a lot of energy; at least it did for him. The female got no air at all. Nor did she need any. She was exerting no energy at all.

For over an hour as I watched, it seemed the male was constantly busy keeping the others away. They would wander around the pool and then poke their nose against the pair. This usually was left uncontested by the mating male. But then the intruder would become more nosey and push itself with more assertiveness. Sometimes it would even walk right on top of the other two. At this point the male would slap the other with its tail and try to swim away, with his mate en tow, almost always rising to the surface for a gulp of air.

Once in a while a surge of water would splash over the rocky bank from the stream and agitate the pool. When this happened the salamander would just yield themselves to the current and slowly drift to the bottom of the pool. Occasionally an individual would float past in the main current of the stream, seeming to enjoy the ride. At other times when only a small current of water was entering the pool, the others would swim against the current just for pleasure – or so it seemed. They didn’t seem at all bothered by the cold or by the large primate observer that was only a few feet away. Even when the occasional wanderer would leave the water right in front of me, they didn’t seem to care that I was there.

It was surprising though that they didn’t seem at all interested in eating. Even the ones that weren’t mating paid no attention to the occasional mayfly naiad as it undulated through the water right in front of them. It seemed that this was supposed to be a time for other things and not for grub.

Solomon wrote, “There is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven… a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing" (Ecclesiastes 3:1,5). For these newts on a cool winter day in California it was a time for embracing.

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