The dark-eyed stranger is the red-bellied newt, known in scientific circles as Taricha rivularis. A medium-sized salamander (5.5 to 7.5 inches from nose to tail) with a chocolate-brown back and tomato-red underside, this newt lives in the redwood and similar forests and streams of northern California.
Originally, its range was described as four counties: Humboldt, Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma, and this was the only place in the world that this attractive salamander lived. But somehow the red-bellied newt has also made a small home in a corner of Santa Clara County 80 miles south of its main population. Where the North American and Pacific tectonic plates have shaped the Santa Cruz Mountains and the San Andreas Fault has slashed out the drainage pattern of the Stevens Creek watershed, this new population of the red-bellied newt was discovered by a trail runner in 2009.
Such a discovery was improbable. That's a long distance for a salamander to walk and there are the salty waters - a deadly barrier to amphibians - of the Golden Gate Strait and San Francisco Bay in between. Every week many thousands of curious hikers and mountain bikers visit the trails above the metropolitan area between San Francisco and San Jose. Surely someone would have noticed a disjunct population of a brightly colored newt before. And so, the discovery was met with skepticism by the experts.
Especially when this red-accented salamander made its surprise appearance in the territory of two common newts - the California newt (Taricha torosa) and the rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa), both of which have dark orange backs with brighter orange bellies. Among the tangle of fallen trunks and leaves on the floor of a dark, damp forest, it would be easy to mix up reds and oranges and browns and the various Taricha salamanders.
But all one has to do is look into the eyes of this dark-eyed stranger for the definitive clue: the red-bellied newt has eyes that are completely and absolutely black, whereas the California and the rough-skinned newts have bands of bright gold through their eyes.
I admit, I was the first skeptic about the initial report of red-bellied newts in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Even with photographic evidence, I didn't really believe the legend until I was flashed by its little red hands in the dark forest above Stevens Creek. When I knelt down to peer into the orbs of that first red-bellied newt, I fell into a pool of science and controversy. And it all started with the runner with a 1000-watt smile.
To be continued as The Thousand-Watt Smile.
This post is the first in a series on the discovery of red-bellied newts in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. I expect to be posting one to two times a week for the next month or so to tell this exciting story. Please come back for more of the story, or you can be notified whenever a new post is published by using the FOLLOW DIPPER RANCH BY EMAIL or the RSS feed options in the upper righthand corner of this site.