I join generations of gobsmacked naturalists in saying O. M. G.
Meet the Sierra newt (Taricha sierrae). I’m a dryland girl and don’t have much acquaintance with the salamander family, though I have spotted these guys over the years during different trips to the mountains. Last week, I was camping in the Southern Sierras and saw several of them around the campground and out in the forest. The area seemed oddly newt-rich. One even waddled right past our fire pit late in the night, braving our head lamps and chair legs. I could tell by the look of them that they liked moist places, but I did not know they also swam. I had never seen them on river banks, only away from the water, in campgrounds and off trails.
So imagine my surprise when, hanging out by a stream (Water! Living water! I hadn’t seen any for months) I found one of these guys coiled up and still on the bottom of the stream bed. It looked so out of place–I thought it might be dead, dropped in there by a predator, perhaps? So I poked it with a stick — a favorite primate tool–and was surprised to see Mr. or Ms. Newt jump up all affronted and wander off under water. He (I’m going to call him he) didn’t swim. He walked. He had no gills. He released no air bubbles. He just wandered around under water like it was no big thing.
Call me naive, but for me, this was shocking. Miraculous. I had no idea these guys were aquatic. It was like seeing a human friend casually take flight and flap away. I watched him for a few minutes with my mouth hanging open, and then, like a good modern citizen, dutifully recorded the moment for the social media.
Back home with the wonder of the Internet, I was able to identify Mr. Newt and find out what was going on with him and his semi-aquatic lifestyle. This type of newt is born in the water, and at that stage it has gills. When this newt matures, it will leave the water for some kind of amphibious rumspringa in the woods. They are crazy toxic if ingested–they excrete the same neurotoxin as pufferfish– so no one eats them except garter snakes, who are acknowledged bad asses.
(The toxin won’t hurt you if you touch a Sierra newt–which is lucky since I had petted them before bothering to look this up–but don’t lick your fingers afterward. Or the newt.)
Due to this indigestibility, I suppose, Sierra newts waddle around slowly, almost imperiously, right out in the open, like they don’t have a care in the world. None of that paranoiac lizard-style scurrying from rock to rock for them. Sometimes, though, they get stepped on or run over in busy campgrounds, because evolution did not factor in hiking boots, distracted campers and Subaru Outbacks when designing the defensive systems of the newt.
When they decide it is time to meet a special friend and lay some eggs together, the newt returns to the pool from which they hatched–or tries to, since it might be difficult with all the pools in the Sierras drying up–but my guy found his way to the stream, and perhaps was napping, waiting for his lady newt to come by.
But here’s the best part–he was breathing through his skin. The gills he had as a baby are long gone, traded for fledgling lungs when he left his birth pool. But once back in the water, he dispenses with those clumsy organs altogether and draws oxygen out of the water straight through his skin, in a process called diffusion. That’s right. This handsome orange show-off breathes in three different ways over the course of his life: by gills, by lungs and, call it what you will, by magic, because this diffusion business is obviously pure sorcery. No wonder witches keep newt parts in their spice cupboards!