As summer draws to a close and autumn takes over, the northeast is undeniably transforming, giving a sense of preparing for winter. For one small creature found across the Finger Lakes Region, the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens), it is a time to transform both in appearance and way of life, cycling through life just as the seasons cycle through the year.
Hatching from eggs laid in a vernal pool or pond in March or April, red-spotted newts pass the summer as aquatic larvae eating and trying to avoid being eaten. These olive-colored larvae look like adult salamanders in form apart from possesing external gills and a vertically flattened tail with dorsal and ventral fins. Between August and November, the salamander larva leaves its aquatic home – and previous appearance – to become land-dwelling as a bright red or orange juvenile with spots running down its backs. During this transformation, the newt’s gills are absorbed, the tail loses its fins and flattens out horizontaly, and the animal’s skin becomes rougher to withstand the drier conditions on land. Scientists also give this life stage a new name: the newt is no longer a larva but a red eft. Whether the transformation is prompted by the eft spending more time on land or the eft spending more time on land due to the transformation is still being debated.
Red efts roam away from their home pools, combing the forests for food with little fear of predation. Bright coloration in nature, particularly for reptiles and amphibians, generally indicates a warning and the red eft is no different as it possesses a neurotoxin in its skin. This neurotoxin, called tetrodotoxin, can cause death if ingested. Red efts then spend the winter hibernating beneath decaying logs and leaf litter on the forest floor.
When ready to mate 1-7 years later, juveniles return to their home ponds, transform into green adults with red spots and spend the remainder of their lives semi-aquatic. With the loss of their bright coloration adults also lose their toxicity.
Throughout upstate New York, red efts are fairly easy to find for viewing in wooded areas, especially if one goes out after a heavy rain. It is highly recommended that a person washes their hands with soap and warm water after handling a red eft to avoid any secretions they may have come in contact with. Take caution handling live animals on public lands as fees can be issued for harrassing wildlife, and never remove live animals as this is illegal in New York State without a permit. With this in mind, going out to the woods to view red efts is still an enjoyable experience, especially in the crisp autumn air and flaming colors of fall.