Second Nature:Salamander Safari

One of the easiest animals for children to observe is the red-spotted newt. And summer is the time to go on a safari to find this salamander in different stages of its life, on land and in water. 

These little creatures have an amazing life cycle. In their adult phase, they are the olive-colored salamanders (newts are a kind of salamander) that are abundant in nearly any pond. These salamanders lay their eggs in the pond. You probably won’t see the eggs since they lay them singly, attached to underwater vegetation. When the eggs hatch, the baby salamanders (biologists call them larvae) have feathery gills that look like spaniel ears.

Over the course of about three months, they grow legs, reabsorb their gills and take to the land. Their skin takes on a granular texture and turns orange. This is called the red eft stage, and they remain in this terrestrial phase for up to five years. When they are ready to become adults, they undergo another metamorphosis. The skin becomes smooth and turns olive-green. The tail becomes flattened like a keel. They can live for more than a decade in the pond as adults.

After a good soaking rain, when the sun comes out and the world is cool and damp, organize a salamander safari. Gather your gear: I recommend a magnifying lens, a small plastic container, and a thermos of lemonade. Make sure hands are clean and free of anything strong like insect repellent and sunscreen. This is important since salamanders absorb chemicals readily through their skin. If this is not practical, you might include some newt handling gloves or mittens in your safari kit.

First head for the woods. Red efts can be found in almost any rural woodland. They are the only salamanders that will be seen out in the open. The color ranges from bright orange to yellow-green. Newts are safe to handle; they can be picked up by lightly gripping the base of the tail and sliding the other hand under as you lift. Newts move fairly slowly, especially if the temperatures are cool. Let it walk from one hand onto another while you observe it. If the newt is too active to stay on a hand, it can be transferred to the plastic container for observation. Look for the rows of red spots along their backs. These will be outlined in black.

Do you have a pond nearby? The second stage of the safari is a visit to a pond. With the same equipment and guidelines, use your plastic container to scoop an adult newt from the water. Because these salamanders are aquatic, leave it in the container with some water for observation. Notice the difference in color and shape. You will still see the red spots outlined in black.

A salamander safari provides an opportunity to talk with your child about several important life lessons. The first is how to interact with animals without causing fear or discomfort. Be gentle. Move slowly. Be aware of how they react. A second important lesson is that wild animals are at home right where you found them. They know where to find food and shelter. They do not want to be pets. After watching your newt for a few minutes, carefully return it and watch it go on its way.

Join BEEC on a Virtual Expedition to discover “Who’s in that Pond?” and find the red eft and spotted newt: beec.org/what-we-do/school-programs/remote-learning.

Second Nature is submitted by the naturalists at Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center in West Brattleboro. Come take a walk on the trails, open to the public from sunrise to sunset. BEEC is a member supported non-profit organization. Visit BEEC.org for more information and current events.