Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Red-spotted Newt

Notophthalmus viridescens, the red-spotted newt.
Newts love rainy weather. And why not? They are amphibians -- born in water and eventually returning to it after a mid-life sojourn on land. Even in their terrestrial stage they like to stay moist. I bet they've been having a great time this past week!

Red-spotted newts like ponds and little lakes, ditches, and marshes in woodlands and parks. They are native North Americans, found from the Canadian Maritime Provinces south to Florida and west to the Great Lakes and Texas. The red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens, is also called eastern newt and eastern spotted newt.

The red-spotted newt's terrestrial stage called a "red eft" is pictured above. Its color is a warning to would-be predators that efts are not good to eat; their skin contains toxins. Efts can spend a few years wandering on land before returning to ponds to become greenish adults.

The adults mate in late winter and early spring; it is probably all over by now. A female is attracted to a male's spots -- black-bordered red spots on their backs, big black polka dots on their little yellow bellies. The male also produces pheromones that he wafts her way with his broad tail.

Red-spotted newt couples mate in water. He hugs her upper body, wrapping his hind legs around her just behind her forelegs. To get ready for mating season, the male grows black spiky structures on inner thighs and toe tips for better gripping and grasping. The male's tail also gets a big crest then too, possibly for better wafting of pheromones. While hugging, the couple rubs heads until the male produces a package of sperm, which he politely deposits on the bottom of the pond. The female picks it up with her genitalia and uses it to fertilize her eggs. Then she goes around the pond attaching fertilized eggs to submerged plants. The eggs hatch through spring and summer into little larvae with gills; in late summer they transform into efts and leave the pond.

Red-spotted newts look like lizards but have soft skin instead of scales. They are a kind of salamander. The funny thing about salamanders is that they all spend much of their lives in water, yet they are symbols of fire. In ancient times, they were thought to be unhurt by flames. The word salamander comes from Greek for fire lizard. In medieval times salamanders were even thought to originate from flames, and practitioners of the occult saw them as the embodiment of elemental fire (hence their inclusion in magical potions).

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