Meet the Amazing Sierra Newt


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!

Leave a comment


  1. WOW! Amazing! I never knew any of this. Of course I am in the desert and don’t see many of these in my excursions out of the area. Thank for the nature lesson.

  2. I see orange newts like this in Western Massachusetts all the time. I wonder if they’re the same…they are really cute.

    • These guys only live in CA– in the Sierras, and west of the Sierras, basically. Your Western Mass newts are probably close relatives.

  3. Kelly, thanks for sharing your wonder and delight. I enjoyed your description of the moment, the video clip, and the science facts. And I agree: the underwater breathing is by magic! I know we have salamanders in southern Ontario, Canada, but I’m not sure if we have newts.

    • Thanks, Michael. Newts are a subgroup of salamander, so…maybe they’re in your neck of the woods?

      I think the term often applies to salamanders who spend a chunk of their life on dry land. But then, don’t some salamanders live in fire as well???? 🙂 I’m far from being an expert. In fact, I’m expecting to be corrected on something or other I’ve said here before long.

  4. Thank you for sharing this moment! It’s always nice to be reminded of the beauty and magic of the world, especially when things seem dark in our human political realm…

  5. I share your gobsmacked OMG! Last year we had newts in the small pond in the corner of my community garden. I spent more time sitting by the pond watching them than I did doing actual gardening. They were grayish with yellow-orange throats. Then the real excitement came when swarms of baby newts appeared. They all disappeared one day, eaten by something I guess, since they were still small. That was too bad for them but also for us. I’d been hoping that a newt army might rise up and do something about our slug problem.

  6. Well! That IS amazing. I’d never heard of them–though I too am from arid climes so…. My husband found a tiger salamander under a large stone in our garden once. That was quite a shock. Great video. What an interesting sight!

  7. This trait is indeed amazing and it is even more amazing when you think it is shared by (as far as I know) all amphibians. Most have lungs to breathe in the air but almost all can also breathe through their skin underwater. Can you imagine how convenient that would be to get oxygen directly to the blood stream?

    Not to be the bearer of bad news, but amphibians populations are declining both here in the US and abroad and it is scary

  8. Amphibious rumspringa! Never thought I’d see those two words strung together. I may have snorted when I read that.

  9. It is amazing! Just want to point out to you that evolution is a theory,not an entity, and therefore cannot be “designing” anything. Think deeper and don’t be credulous with regard to the things that are claimed that evolution can “do”.

    I come here off and on and appreciate a lot of the things you have to share. Thanks!

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