NEWTS
Michael Ellis

A friend recently mumbled something indistinct to me about the depressing rain and a newt, a good-for-nothing slimy reptile. A first I thought my liberal friend was referring to the new Speaker of the House but then I realized she was talking about the real newts. Which are actually amphibians, neither reptiles nor Republicans.

I like this kind of newt and our wet weather has created newt heaven. These gentle animals are now out in force and looking for love.

We have two common species, the California and the Rough-skinned Newt. Both have backs that are deep red-brown, almost black and an underside which is pale yellow to startling orange. This brightness advertises that newt skin contains a very powerful poison called tetradodoxin. This is same poison found in the infamous puffer fish. And small amounts can kill a horse. So please kids, no newt licking for kicks this winter.

Males are easily distinguished from females. The feet of the males are roughened which enables them to grasp the slippery female during mating. Another indication of maleness is if the area between the rear legs, the vent, is swollen. This swelling is caused by the presence of a package of sperm.

Amphibians have failed to sever their ties with water, like reptiles and mammals have, these winter rains allow them to cruise far from home looking for mates. They have an elaborate, courtship that involves much clasping, piggyback riding and the male has a special gland under his chin that inhibits female movement. The act culminates with the male walking over the top of the female and depositing his package of sperm right in front of her nose. She promptly walks over and picks it up with her vent. She stores the sperm and uses it later to fertilize her eggs when she lays them in a stream or pond.

A couple of years ago in Berkeley’s Tilden Park they actually closed a road due to the large number of newts that were getting run over by cars. Somehow I doubt if those Berkeleyites would offer the same protection to the new Newt that’s now in the news. After all what business does government have providing a safety net for its citizens.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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December 1, 2010