Saturday, May 23, 2009

Red Efts: Nifty Adirondack Salamanders

Earlier this spring, after our first few bouts of significant rain, the red efts were on the move. They were tiny, measuring just a bit over an inch from the tip of the snout to the tip of the tail, but their bright orange skin made them stand out brilliantly against the dark gray pavement of the road, and each one that I found got a lift as I carried it to a safer location off the road and into the woods.

Red efts are the terrestrial form of the eastern (or red-spotted) newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. More than just larvae, but not quite adults yet, red efts can be considered the teenager stage in the eastern newt’s life.

New York is home to eighteen species of salamanders, ranging from the gigantic hellbender (which, like the moose, is on my wish list of critters to see some day) to the small red-backed salamander. Of these eighteen species, only one is considered a newt. What is the difference? If you look at a salamander, two things are likely to stand out. One, it’s slick and slimy, and two, it has rib-like ridges along its sides (these are folds of skin called costal grooves). If the salamander in your hand does not have these grooves, and its skin is rather rough, then you are holding a newt. Just to confuse things, the newts are in the family Salmandridae. Go figure.

Most amphibians (frogs and salamanders) follow the typical metamorphic life cycle of egg, larva, adult. There are some notable exceptions. The common red-backed salamander (and some other members of the lungless salamander family) hatches from its terrestrial egg directly into a juvenile form – no larval stage for this salamander. The eastern newt is another exception.

Like most salamanders, the adult newt lays her eggs in the water, where they hatch into larvae, or tadpoles. These larvae spend the summer swimming around their home pool, eating just about every aquatic critter they can shove into their mouths; they are notorious for consuming mosquito larvae (hooray for newts). After two or three months of this lifestyle, the tadpoles metamorphose into efts – teenage newts. As efts they roam the land, wandering moist woods anywhere from two to seven years! Then they undergo one last transformation, this time becoming the mostly aquatic adult, a rather olive-drab salamander with a finned tail. About the only characteristic the adult shares with the eft is the series of red spots on the back, each outlined in black. Back in the water, the adults mate and the cycle begins once more.

All summer long visitors come into the VIC sharing tales of bright orange lizards discovered in the woods. We share with them the story of the efts, and encourage them to keep their eyes open when driving on rainy days and nights, for even though they are small, red efts show up well on the roads and can be avoided by driving carefully.

One last thing to note: handling amphibians. Hardly a one of us can claim to have never picked up a frog or salamander. It’s the child in each of us that insists we do this. Well, now is the time to listen to the adult in each of us. If you must pick up a frog or salamander, please do one thing first: coat your hands in mud, or at least in moist dirt. This is because your skin is acidic, and most amphibians have wonderful slimy skin that not only protects them from drying out, but in many cases helps them with breathing. The acidic nature of our skin can harm the vital mucus coating on their skin. By putting a protective layer of mud (or wet dirt) between your skin and theirs, you make the trauma of being seized a little less harmful for your amphibian friend. And once you’ve taken a good close look, be sure to put the animal back where you found it so it can continue its life ridding the world of insect pests like mosquitoes.

Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.


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