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Meet the Eastern newt, N.H.’s state amphibian

  • Adolescent Eastern newts are bright orange and live on land. pixabay.com



For the Monitor
Tuesday, June 05, 2018

With the start of summer, if you plan to spend time around lakes and ponds or hiking in the woods, be on the lookout for New Hampshire’s state amphibian, the Eastern newt.

Of the 12 species of salamanders found in New Hampshire, the Eastern newt (also known by the sub-species name red-spotted newt) is one of the most common. But it can be confusing because two of its four life stages are commonly mistaken for different species.

Amphibians, including newts, generally spend part of their lives in the water and part on land. The aquatic stage is usually the juvenile form and the terrestrial stage is the adult. However, the Eastern newt turns things upside down.

Adult Eastern newts live in the water and are olive-green with red spots and a yellow belly. They are 2.5 to 5.5 inches long including a vertically flattened tail that works like a rudder to help them swim. They are found in lakes, ponds, marshes and slow moving streams with abundant submerged vegetation. The females lay six to 10 single eggs on the vegetation after each breeding episode. A total of 300 eggs may be laid in a season.

After three to five weeks, tiny gilled larvae emerge from the eggs. They remain on the bottom of the pond or lake, eating, growing and hiding from predators. If they survive (only about 2 percent of them do), in 12 to 16 weeks they will absorb their gills, form lungs, turn bright orange and emerge onto the land as red efts.

Late summer is the season of emergence, but you don’t have to wait until then to see the efts because they spend two to seven years on land in this form. Due to their bright color, they are frequently seen, especially after a rain or on damp days.

Being visible would normally spell disaster for a small creature, but they emit a poisonous substance when threatened and are either distasteful or toxic to predators. The orange color is a warning to predators.

Efts feed on insects, worms and snails. They also ingest their own molted skin, which is shed as they grow. They grow a great deal at this stage. Lucky observers may spot young efts which are only about one inch long. During the years on land, they will reach three to four inches before metamorphosing into the adult stage. Winters are spent hibernating under logs or leaf litter.

When it is time to transform into the adult form, usually in the fall, the eft turns olive green, its tail flattens and it heads back to the water. It keeps its lungs and must come to the surface to breathe, this is often when they are seen in the water. Newts retain some of their toxicity, but it is less intense. Thus they may become prey for fish, frogs, crayfish and other aquatic predators.

At this stage, the sexes can be easily distinguished, especially during the breeding season (either spring or fall). The male has a swollen vent, broader tail and enlarged hind legs with raised black nubs on the inner thighs and toe tips. The nubs help the male cling to the female during mating.

During the winter, the adults remain active under the ice. They continue to feed and swim around but often form groups of up to 40 individuals.

As with the juvenile form, the adults eat a wide variety of prey including insect larvae, tadpoles, frog and salamander eggs and worms.

Because of the long life cycle (up to 15 years total) and unusual stages, summer is a great time to be on the lookout for the eastern newt, in its various forms.

If you see any, you could participate in the Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program, a citizen science effort run by N.H. Fish and Game Department. If you do see a newt or eft, it’s best not to handle them. Amphibian skin is very sensitive to the natural oils and any bug spray, sunscreen or lotion that might be on our hands.

Observations are used to determine the whereabouts of reptiles and amphibians around the state. You might be surprised to look at the distribution maps and find no reports from your town, so check the map and fill the gap, visit wildlife.state.nh.us/nongame/reptiles-amphibians.html.