California Newt


by Brendan Bane

California’s state mammal can knock you on your fanny and its flower glows a vibrant orange. Taricha torosa, the unofficial state amphibian, does both, with poisonous skin as lethal as a grizzly bear’s strike and a belly as colorful as a poppy's petals.

Venture into moist forests along the coast, from Mendocino to San Diego, and you’re likely to find California newts hiding under wood scraps or stumbling over duff. Their chocolate-topped bodies are about 4 to 8 inches long, with golden eyes and a rudder-like tail. Adorable faces don’t tell the whole tale, though. Their bodies are wet with poison.

The California newt’s skin, muscles and blood all contain tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin also found in the deadly blue-ringed octopus, for which there is no antivenom. The toxin freezes nerve cells, blocking them from releasing or receiving neurotransmitters, and rendering voluntary muscles paralyzed. Only handle newts if your hands are free of open wounds and, no matter the temptation, never lick a newt. Scientists estimate that ingesting less than 1/1000th of an ounce of tetrodotoxin is sufficient to kill a 170-pound person.

To their credit, newts give plenty of warning about their toxic bodies. When agitated, they assume a defensive posture, resembling something of a newt full locust pose. With their backs arched and heads and tails toward the sky, newts’ orange undersides signal “Warning! I am NOT a tasty treat.”

Newts do more than yoga, though. They speak too. Listen closely (remember not to lick) and you may hear faint squeaks, clicks or whistles. Scientists suggest the noises may serve as distress calls, means to establish hierarchies and a way of broadcasting gender, which is important, because newts devote a lot of time to mating.

Newts venture from afar (up to 2 miles), sometimes en masse, to breed in the pond in which they were born. No one knows exactly how they find their way, but some suggest the newts navigate starry skies or are keen to familiar smells.

When they do find the breeding pond, madness ensues. Males amass into a wriggling pile called a spawning ball (see video below) to compete for access to the female at the center. When the time comes to lay eggs, females enter a trancelike state, during which they attach nearly 50 soon-to-be newts, contained in a gelatinous goop, to secure vegetation.

Larval-stage newts hatch 2 weeks to 2 months later.

Watch a spawning video here:

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