Friday, December 19, 2014

Is That a Salamander in Your Pocket?

A photo on a computer screen in the ranger office   
Months went by and I forgot about the alleged red-bellied newt of Santa Clara County, then one Monday in December when I walked into the ranger office, a photo flicked on a computer screen and caught my eye. It was a newt being held by a hand clothed in a ranger's khaki sleeve. I looked again:  the newt in the photograph appeared to be the dark-eyed stranger I'd never met, the red-bellied newt. In the background of the photo were the same ranger bulletins I could see on the real bulletin board across the office. I was stunned as photo after photo of a red-bellied newt clicked on the computer's screen saver.

There was noone in the main room, so I shouted, "Who took these photos? I need to know now!"

A ranger peeked out the door to the meeting room. "Chuck brought that newt in this weekend," he explained.

"Chuck the volunteer?"


"Chuck the runner dude?"


My earlier assumptions about Chuck exploded. I had thought Chuck's original report of red-bellied newts on a local trail was likely a case of misidentification. Although I had never seen a live red-bellied newt myself, these photos showed a newt with colors distinctly different from those of the more common California newts or rough-skinned newts. Without doubt the photos on the computer screen matched the red-bellied newt photos and descriptions I reviewed when I first investigated Chuck's report. The belly was tomato red, the eyes were entirely dark, and there was a dark band across the underside of its tail near the vent.

I needed to talk to a first-hand witness and paced the office floor waiting for the weekend crew to report for their Monday morning shift. Boy, had I misjudged Chuck. My mind was spinning to think that this unusual newt might be prowling about a preserve just down the road from the ranger office.

Computer photo of a red-bellied newt in front of a computer photo of a red-bellied newt, and so on   
 The weekend ranger arrived and gave me his report. On Saturday, Ranger Greg was directing traffic around a tree that had fallen on Page Mill Road. Trail crew member Steve was cutting the trunk into smaller pieces with a chainsaw so it could be dragged out of the way. A vehicle pulled up and trail patrol volunteer Chuck charged up to Greg, pulled a newt out of the pocket of his running shorts, and shoved it in Greg's face.  "Not your usual response to a traffic problem," Greg thought. Chuck was talking a mile a minute about protecting rare newts and how he needed to find the park biologist. Greg was trying to concentrate on the traffic and keeping the animated Chuck away from the weaving cars and screaming chainsaw. He distracted Chuck by asking him to search the patrol truck for a container to safely hold the newt. From the side of the road, Greg could hear Chuck's running commentary about the tools, trash and other diverse items that take up residence in a patrol truck. Eventually the newt was secured in an empty water bottle.

The fallen tree was pulled off the road, the traffic thinned out, and the band of staff and volunteer drove up to the ranger office to further investigate the red newt waiting like a genie to be released from its bottle. Steve, a keen and interested wildlife observer, knew to check the California Herps website.  Step-by-step they worked through the detailed descriptions and photos Gary Nafis maintains on this excellent website chockfull of information about reptiles and amphibians of California. It all checked out except for the description of the range. When I, the park biologist, didn't answer my phone, they took photos and decided to release the trail-pocket-bottle traveling newt at a nearby pond.

After hearing Greg's report, I reminded him that all of the California Taricha newts contain a potent neurotoxin that can be secreted through their skin and suggested he not drink out of the weekend's water bottle. Then I quickly walked out to the pond to see if I could find the released newt. No such luck. But now I was convinced that red-bellied newts were out there somewhere. I followed up with a humble phone call to Chuck to acknowledge his discovery and seek more details. This time I was going to listen carefully to everything he said.

Red-bellied newt hanging out with the rangers   
Over the next few months and years, Chuck and I walked the trails in the Stevens Creek watershed many times and I got to know him better. It turns out that Chuck-the-runner has always been interested in reptiles and amphibians. In grade school, he brought pillowcases of snakes to share with reluctant teachers. Chuck even raises tortoises from several different continents in his backyard. I learned to trust Chuck's enthusiastic patronage of these dark-eyed amphibians, however, my own professional associates responded to the discovery with skepticism and secrecy. I couldn't blame them but still I had to convince them otherwise.

We now had photographic evidence that red-bellied newts were somewhere out there in the often fog-shrouded Stevens Creek watershed   

To be continued as First Ever Red-Bellied Newt.

This post is the third in a series on the discovery of red-bellied newts in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. To start at the beginning of the series go to Mystery of the Red-Bellied Newt.

Red-bellied newt (Taricha rivularis)
California newt (Taricha torosa)
Rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa)

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