Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Newts

In ancient times, creatures like salamanders and newts were often attributed with magical powers. It was once believed that certain salamanders were born out of fire. The truth is that when some wet logs were taken from the wood pile, or picked up from the forest floor, there were salamanders that had taken up residence within nooks, crannies or cracks in the wood or the dampness under the bark. Throw that log onto a fire and what is a smart salamander to do but crawl away from the heat. People must truly have been much less intelligent than they are now to have been so ignorant of their surroundings not to have known that salamanders often lived in damp or rotting logs. One salamander, native to most of Western Europe, was even named Fire Salamander.

Then of course there was the famous witches' incantation, from Shakespeare's Macbeth:


"Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,--
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."


That little newt must have been one powerful little critter to have an eye that was the first ingredient in a witches' brew. There were plenty of other powers attributed to these creatures some based on nothing more than fantasy and others based upon reality. A down to earth, reality based, power of these creatures was their ability to kill. Some have very powerful toxins in their skins that are released when these small amphibians are attacked. These toxins, dependent upon newt species as each carries varying amounts, can in some instances easily kill predators from other amphibians, to reptiles, to birds to mammals including those as large a bobcats (see: http://www.caudata.org/cc/articles/toxin.shtml). Chances are that enough of that toxin could also kill a human. One has to wonder, were newts ever used by man to mix a poison to kill off an enemy.

I am not sure if newts or salamanders were ever believed to have the ability to live forever but it would not surprise me if such had been the case. First, just look to the Fire Salamanders or any salamander that would be able to crawl out of a fire and still live. Then look at the life span of the same salamander. Fire Salamanders are believed to have lived for as long as 50 years. While that was news to me, and was questionable to me since the source was Wikipedia, I found another source stating that some live up to 55 years, others to 25 years but most much less than that but still many up to 10 to 12 years. Even 10 to 12 years seems pretty long for such small creatures. (Note, the one that lived up to 55 years is the giant of all newts and salamanders, the Japanese Giant Salamander which can reach a weight of 140 pounds.) Such life spans could make them seem immortal but then again people back in medieval times were not keeping these creatures as pets nor studying them scientifically and likely had no idea how long they lived.

I am still wondering though if they have some magical power that allows them to live when they almost assuredly they should have died. My wonder is not fueled by the fact that they have crawled out of fires nor by the fact that some have very long life spans nor that they can live with deadly toxins within their skins. What makes me wonder is something that I have witnessed for myself, the astonishing ability of a particular Iberian Ribbed Newt to have survived for well over one year, without a watery home (they usually live in stagnant or slow moving bodies of water), without a ready source of dampness in which to shelter itself in the absence of watery home, and without a readily available source of food. Sometime over one year ago, I had 3 juveniles of this type of newt. I first got them in July 2010. Then, sometime before October 9th, the date of the Long Island Herpetological Society's annual show in 2010, I lost two of them. I think it was in September but just know for sure it was before the LIHS show. I figured that either they had somehow climbed out of there tank or that while cleaning some plants out of there tank I had inadvertently scooped up two of them with the plants and then thrown everything into the trash. As it turns out, at least for one of these tough little newts (little only when juveniles, they can and do grow fairly large for a newt - up to 12 inches), it had probably climbed out of its tank and escaped or I had dropped one on the floor when cleaning out the plants. After I realized that two went missing, I put up a good effort at searching the basement for them. I moved just about everything on the floor while looking for them. I could not find an sign of them and finally gave up after at least a couple of hours of effort on my part. I figured I had thrown them out with the plants that I had culled from the tank and figured they were gone forever.

I was very wrong, they, or at least one of them was not gone forever. I know this now because about one week ago, I was somewhat startled to see something crawling on my basement floor that looked like my single remaining Iberian Ribbed Newt. I wondered, for a moment: "Had that last one escaped its tank". Then I realized, there was no way that this small, skinny, little creature was the same as the fairly large and robust one I had in my community fish tank. The one in the tank had to be at least 7-8 inches long and this one was lucky if it hit 4 inches. The one on the tank was well fed and was quite a bit larger in girth as the one crawling on the floor. Then it hit me, surprised me, that the one I was looking at crawling across the carpeting in my basement had to be one of the two that went missing over a year ago. I wondered where it had been, what it had eaten and how in Hades it had survived for that long - out of water and without a ready source of food. I did not wonder too long. I got a net, scooped it up, and put it into the tank with the larger one. Why a net? Well, because of my current medical condition and because these newts can shoot there ribs out through their skin to pierce a predator. Why put it in the tank with the bigger one? Yeah, I know, that was a mistake, it should have gone into a quarantine tank for at least a month to make sure it was in good health before placing it the same tank as the other one. That was a brain fart on my part and I only thought of the quarantine tank after a few days of it being in with the larger one. What was done was done and it has been in there over a week already and seems to be adjusting with no ill effects on the other newt.

Yes, I said it seems to be adjusting well. At first, it seemingly wanted nothing to do with its new watery home. I keep the other Iberian Ribbed Newt in there with no land area on which it can crawl out. These newts are primarily, if not totally aquatic in there native range so I thought little of putting it right in there. Had I been thinking, and not been suffering from brain fartitis, I might have realized that since this newt had been out on dry land for over a year, that a completely aquatic environment would not suit it well. I would have been right. It squirmed this way and that and continuously tied to climb up the glass or atop the floating plants to get out of the water. It has since stopped trying to climb up what little glass is exposed above the water line. Now it primarily stays atop the floating plants and seems comfortable in the water now. I am happy it stays near the surface atop the plants as I am somewhat concerned that the bigger one might eat it if it gets the chance. The sad truth is I do not have another tank available for it so in there it will say at least for now.

Speaking of eating, it has started eating. Well, it actually started within a few days of it being found on the floor. It took part of a trout worm from my fingers when I held in front of its snout. It has eaten other parts of worms since then. As I said, it seems to be adjusting to its new home. My guess is it has gained a bit of weight as its belly has filled out somewhat since I found it. Now mind you, it was pretty skinny when I found it, still is, but not emaciated by any stretch of the imagination. For that to be the case, it must have eaten something over the course f a year. My guess is that it caught at least several of the creepy crawlers that run rampant in my basement. I don't know if they are silverfish, or centipedes but they are long, with lots of legs and are pretty darned fast. I have never tried to kill them off because while they are around I have never seen any other type of bugs in my basement with the exception of some flies, mosquitoes and spiders. I don't kill off the spiders either, I let them take care of the flies and mosquitoes that I don't get. Back to those creepy crawlers. Regardless of them being fast, my guess is that the slow little newt must have caught at least several of them for it to have survived that long without becoming emaciated. I guess one thing it had going for it was the fact that its natural habitat is somewhat arid and sometimes the ponds in which they live dry up forcing them to estivate under rocks, in crevices or anywhere that they can find dampness (see: http://www.caudata.org/cc/species/Pleurodeles/P_waltl.shtml). However it did it, whatever it ate, wherever it found moist spots in which to shelter itself, it made it for more than a year. It is one tough newt species and one tough newt in particular!

The two newts in the accompanying picture (click on it to enlarge it) are the two newts that I have right now. I took the photograph this evening (heck, it is only 5:15 and its been long dark outside already). I wanted you to see them side by side for a comparison of what a year can do - a year for one that was well fed and living in the appropriate environment, a year for the other that was spent in what must have been newt hell. Yet, it survived. The smaller newt measures in at about 4 to 4.5 inches. The larger one is between 8.5 to 9 inches in length, probably closer to 8.5 but it may have reached a full 9 inches had I straightened it out when I measured it; instead I estimated around a small curve in its tail. It is definitely at least a bit longer that 8.5 inches long. These reportedly grow up to 12 inches in the wild but in captivity they normally max out at about 8 inches in length. My larger one is well on its way to becoming an atypical captive as far as size goes since it is already well over 8 inches in length. I am hoping it grows at east a couple more inches but only time will tell. I am also hopeful that the smaller one will grow to a normal size for an adult but this is questionable right now since it was not allowed proper nourishment for over a year and therefore may be stunted in any further growth. Again, time will tell and you can bet that it will be fed a good diet from now on. It will, at least, have the opportunity to grow over whatever time it has left in its lifetime. Besides the obvious difference in the length of each of these newts, the other obvious difference is their girth. I did not measure them around, I did not want to upset either enough to have it shoot out its ribs through its skin. This is a defensive ability they have that apparently does not harm the newt but can pierce a predator with the sharp rib tips (see both http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iberian_Ribbed_Newt and http://www.caudata.org/cc/species/Pleurodeles/P_waltl.shtml). Despite my not measuring them, I would offer a guess that the larger one is at least three times to four times around in girth than the smaller one. A good and steady diet will do that just as lack of food will prevent such growth. Yet as  I said, the little one was not emaciated when I found it, nor did it seem excessively dehydrated. While I would not normally consider this newt to be in good shape (it was skinny and had not gown enough for its age) I am flabbergasted as to how it survived a year in as good a shape as I found it. Maybe immortality is another of their traits otherwise this was just one lucky newt.

All the best,
Glenn B
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