I went to West Virginia for the birds. Instead, I was completely blown away by the newts and efts. On my last trip two years ago, we found some in a puddle by the side of a road, but the group I was with that day was all about the birds, so we weren't able to hang around and study them as I would have liked to do. This trip, I had more all-round naturalists with me, both as my trip leaders and as fellow participants, so I could take the time to study these cuties.
*Just a bit of natural history: Salmanders and newts are amphibians. Though they superficially resemble lizards, with their front and back pairs of legs being approximately equal in length and having long tails, they lack scaly skin, claws, and external ear openings.
Red-spotted Newts are a subspecies of the Eastern Newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. Newts differ from salamanders in that they have a rough-textured skin, not a slimy one. Red-spotted newts, N. v. viridescens, are 2.5" to 5.5" long. They have a wide distribution, and can be found in virtually the entire eastern half of North America. Despite being widespread, they are not around every bend. You have to look a bit to find them.
The first ones I saw were courtesy of Nina, who spent the week teaching me to look down while I encouraged her to look up. Together, we make a good team. She discovered a pair of adult Red-spotted Newts in the creek behind our Farmhouse, doing the deed.
I have shown this photo before, but I tweaked it a little to enhance the colors, and besides, it is too sexy, so it is worth repeating. As breeding season nears, male newts develop the swollen vents visible in the above photograph. Fertilization is not internal, however. Instead, the male releases gelatinous spermatophores, little pyramids of DNA, which the female retrieves. The eggs are fertilzed as they pass through the cloacal opening and are deposited in water.
After the eggs hatch, they spend some time in a larval form, complete with external gills. The next stage of development is called transformation, when they become Red Efts. The efts live a terrestrial life for 1-3 years before returning to the water and assuming adult characteristics.
The first eft I saw was this guy, on the sidewalk at the picnic area at Hawks Nest State Park, on Rt. 60.
Nina didn't have her camera, having decided to leave it on the bus to keep it dry, and I was only able to grab two quick shots. This is the only one which was worth keeping. I really wish I could have gotten something in the picture for scale.
Eft #2 was found on our Muddlety trip. We were standing in the road, listening and looking for birds, when I happened to glance down. This little guy was inches away from a great big hiking boot worn by a great big guy. I yelled a warning just in time for us all to enjoy this little beauty. Another time I wished for a ruler - this mite was much, much smaller than the Hawks Nest eft I saw a couple of days before.
Face it: If you are soft and tasty and spend 2 or 3 years walking around a forest floor without the benefit of teeth, claws, or scales, you need some kind of defense, and in the case of Red Efts, poison is the answer. They are toxic, and their bright red color is probably a warning to potential predators. "Don't eat me, or you'll be sorry!"
This is Red Eft #3, also seen along the Muddlety road. In this case, the eft in question was larger and browner than the other two. In my Junior Naturalist way, I hypothesized that this one was older, and on his/her way to becoming an adult newt, returning to the water and completing the cycle of life.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and that you are encouraged to keep looking down for salamaders, newts, and efts. For more on amphibians, please visit Nature Remains and follow Nina's vernal pool study.
*Information about newts/efts from the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians.