|A red-bellied newt in hand in the field|
"In addition to being a delightful place to live, northern California offers an asset that is perhaps less well known to the millions who have been flocking there in recent years: In my somewhat prejudiced opinion, its newts are unrivaled anywhere in the world!"- Victor Chandler Twitty, Of Scientists and Salamanders, 1966While they were sorting through the genetic code, the Berkeley team asked us to keep quiet about the unusual sightings of red-bellied newts in Santa Clara County until they had published their results. As a child of two university professors, I was not surprised by this request. So we did what we were best at, tromping around in the forest to learn more about this population especially where they lived.
I dove into the literature to tease out tips on the behavior of red-bellied newts which might help us focus our surveys. Many of the red-bellied newt publications were by Dr. Victor C. Twitty and students in his Stanford laboratory.
Dr. Twitty first described red-bellied newts as a separate species in 1935 and he continued to study their behavior and biology for 32 years. Indeed, throughout this time, his academic home was Stanford University located in Palo Alto, California at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the very same mountain range that shelters the Stevens Creek watershed. Did our improbable discovery of a disjunct population of red-bellied newts in Stevens Creek have anything to with Twitty's groundbreaking salamander research decades earlier, especially his approach, unusual in academia at that time, of combining laboratory experiments and field research? Or were Twitty's and our discoveries random and unrelated?
Dr. Twitty attested to the mix of random and methodical events that shape a scientific career and led him to invest so much of his seasoned years into this small amphibian in his popular book, Of Scientists and Salamanders.
"The role of chance in research and discovery is greater than is generally recognized, and this will be well exemplified from microsurgery to natural history and back again, and from the study of cell populations in tissue culture to the study of animal populations in the streams and hills of northern California."
|Walking the Stevens Creek watershed|
|Victor C. Twitty as young embryologist at Yale University.|
Image from Embryo Project Encyclopedia
ISSN: 1940-5030 http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/1816
When he originally came to Stanford in fall of 1932, after a one-year stint as a National Research Council Fellow in Germany at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, Twitty was relieved to find an academic position during the Great Depression. He continued to cut up salamander embryos grown from the familiar tiger salamander eggs which his East Coast associates shipped to him, but he also ventured into the Santa Cruz Mountains to find the abundant eggs of the California newt. On his first foray into the hills above Stanford, he described collecting on a "pond floor almost solidly carpeted by the spherical jelly masses in which the eggs are deposited" - a bounty of study subjects for the young professor.
|Warning colors - this newt contains tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin.|
|California newt larva showing two dark dorsal bands.|
|Red-bellied newt larva with black pigmentation spread evenly across back and sides. As dwellers of the fast-moving portions of streams, red-bellied newt larvae have a dorsal fin that ends before the head and other modifications for life in rough water. Photo by Gary Nafis at Californiaherps.com|
|Rough-skinned newt larvae with black pigmentation somewhat banded in a pattern intermediate between the California newt and the red-bellied newt. Photo by Gary Nafis at Californiaherps.com|
The lengthy descriptions of embryological processes and lab experiments in Of Scientists and Salamanders started to overwhelm me. The Twitty lab seemed far away from our wanderings at Stevens Creek.
But as I slowly found the time to read on, I was surprised to see how Dr. Twitty's academic focus suddenly shifted in 1953. Unexpected circumstances brought him to Pepperwood Creek and over the next thirteen years, he and his students conducted a flurry of research experiments on red-bellied newts in their natural habitat. In 1966 he published Of Scientists and Salamanders, partially to share this remarkable change in career, and then within six months he committed suicide. Our little Stevens Creek team couldn't help but wonder if this sad event contained any clues to how our and Twitty's paths crossed.
To be continued as The Pepperwood Creek Affair.
This post is the eighth 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.
*Eventually, a fourth species, the Sierra Newt of the Sierran foothills, Taricha sierrae, was recognized as a separate species from the similar looking California or coast range newt.
Rough-skinned newt, Taricha granulosa
California newt, Taricha torosa
Red-bellied newt, Taricha rivularis
Eastern tiger salamander Ambystoma tigrinum formerly Amblystoma t.
California bay, Umbellularia californica
Victor Chandler Twitty, Stanford University, 1966, Of Scientists and Salamanders, W.H. Freeman and Co., San Francisco. All quotes in this post are from this book.