Published in the January 18 – January 31, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill L

By Joy Joyner

Joy Joyner

California Red-bellied Newt

They have names that sound like ingredients for a witch’s cauldron: Arboreal Salamander, Tiger Salamander, Yellow-eyed Ensatina, Red-bellied Newt, Rough-skinned Newt, California Newt. These are some of the lesser known, though common, amphibians that we find in our area — and they’re a fun part of the South Valley environment for kids of all ages to get to know.

The rainy season brings these moisture-loving creatures out of their aestivation (hibernation that takes place during warm, dry weather). It’s easy to see the role larger species play in our local ecosystem. When it comes to these small and secretive critters, their roles may be a bit more difficult to see. Let’s take a look at what makes local amphibians so special.

Habitat for each of these species is very similar. Adults spend time under rocks, logs, bark, and leaf litter, with some utilizing animal burrows, such as ground squirrel holes. Adult homes are normally close to fishless, seasonal ponds that are utilized during mating season, which can be anywhere from November to June, based on species. Our oak woodlands, chaparral, rocky pastures, and coniferous forests are the perfect habitats for salamanders and newts. During their young, larval stage, aquatic salamanders and newts will eat tadpoles, zooplankton, small aquatic invertebrates, and decaying organic matter, acting as water cleaners and recycling units.

Ground dwelling and well camouflaged as adults, the diets of local salamanders and newts are very similar as well. Ants, beetles, slugs, snails, worms, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, wood roaches, smaller newts and salamanders, and any other invertebrates they can fit in their mouths are on the diet. Many gardeners find newts and salamanders in their gardens and seek to relocate them. As a gardener, I would be thrilled to find them among my flowers eating the snails and slugs.

Newts often use a long, sticky tongue to capture their prey. Salamanders will use the same technique, or grasp with their strong jaws. The Arboreal Salamander has a mouth full of tiny, sharp teeth that can deliver a powerful bite to crush its prey.

Eat or be eaten, is the law of nature. The most common form of defense among newts is poison. When threatened, newts will assume a stiff-legged posture, with their tails arched over their backs so the glands that secrete poison underneath them are exposed to the predator, along with the often bright underside coloration that acts as a warning. To smaller predators, this toxin would be deadly. Some newts will also drop their tails to distract a predator, and then run away. While some salamanders secrete toxins, others have a more unexpected defense, they squeak, jump, then flee the scene.

Hiking local trails at this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to see newts and salamanders. The day after it rains, take the time to visit Uvas Canyon County Park or Rancho Canada Del Oro Open Space Preserve. Remember to observe but not touch our amphibious friends. We want to keep them and you healthy and safe. Also remember to stay on marked trails. These amphibians like to hide under leaves, logs and rocks. Going off trail increases your chances of stepping on one and damaging sensitive ecosystems. Share your sightings with us at www.facebook.com/wildliferehab.

Joy Joyner is president of the board for the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center. She can be reached by emailing her at joy.joyner@gmail.com.