Monday, May 16, 2011

Efts on the march

A red eft flares like a torch from an emerald carpet of moss. I was in the mountains of southern West Virginia the other day, and off and on showers moistened everything. The dampness was much to the efts' liking, and we saw many.

Red efts are the juvenile stage of the red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. They are our most conspicuous salamander, at least in wooded areas, thanks to their penchant for boldly strolling the woodlands during broad daylight.

An eft has little to fear from predators. Their brilliant coloration is classic aposematic warning - the day-glo orange shouts I AM POISONOUS! And that they are. Apparently the nasty chemical that efts are infused with is tetrodotoxin, and you'll want to avoid it. Ingestion results in severe nerve damage and possible death. This is the same stuff that is in highly poisonous pufferfish, and it is claimed that tetrodotoxin is ten times more toxic than potassium cyanide.

So, the little eft thus boldly strolls the forest floor, unconcerned with larger beasts.

Gimlet-eyed and inscrutable, an eft observes your blogger. For up to three years, an eft will live a terrestrial life, shunning water in favor of upland habitats. They'll hole up in moist places during dry spells, and go hiking during wet times. After a few years, something triggers the eft to return to a more or less permanent water body - possibly the one in which it was spawned - and begin an amazing transformation. It'll lose the brilliant coloration, and become seaweed green. The tail will become flattened and laterally compressed, similar to a muskrat's. Thus transformed, the newt will live for as long as a few decades in the water, like a fish. The newt doesn't lose the toxicity of the eft stage, and is our only salamander that can live with fish, as scaly aquatic predators know to steer clear.

On this damp day, a great many efts were crossing the roads. While their tetrodotoxin defenses work well against conventional predators, the poison does nothing to fend off Fords and Chevrolets. I rescued this one and a few others.

Helping an eft cross the road may bring one good karma. The little fellow in the photo above might still be around in the year 2040. I'd rather see a young eft become an ancient newt, over being transformed into salamander paste by some speeding vehicle. And in return, perhaps the Eft Gods will smile upon me in some small way.


nina at Nature Remains. said...

I was so sure I'd encounter at least one in a week's time in WV, but NO! That must be the down-side of better weather.
Glad you were able to find them.
Thanks for taking care.

Jack and Brenda said...

We were in upper New York (Lake Moreau State Park) in late July, a couple years ago and saw hoards of these guys along the trails. They are great to see. Some photos are at

Heather said...

We will now add Eft Guardian to your list of credentials. Love these little guys. I was out walking with a friend and her son the other day, and he spied the tiniest Red Eft I've ever seen crawling around in the forested landscape. When you say "mountains of WV the other day," I assume that means you went back to Cranberry? If so, I hope you got shots of that coralroot orchid in its full glory!