Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mystery of the Red-Bellied Newt

This is a story of a dark-eyed stranger, one of the most powerful neurotoxins in the natural world, a suicide, and something out of place.

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.


  1. Yay! I've been patiently waiting for this...

    1. Me too! I hope I don't disappoint either of us. Many thanks to my compatriots who've joined me on this adventure over the past 4 years.

  2. Oh I'd love to come across one of these in my hikes. I find the California and rough-skinned newts (I thought those two were one in the same here?) when the rains and wet weather bring them out. I always have to be careful where I step. If I ever stepped on one it would ruin my day...not to mention his too.

    1. California and rough-skinned newts are separate species but look a lot alike. I'll cover that as part of this series with photos to help.

  3. What? All 3 California newts species can be found in the Santa Cruz Mountains? You're Crazy.

  4. I read all posts in this series. There is speculation about slender salamanders "riding the tectonic plates" See this "INTERESTING FACTS: Slender salamanders are an ancient lineage. They are entirely sedentary and in their entire lifespan an individual may move no more than a few square yards. This means that slender salamanders -- perhaps more than any other type of vertebrate -- are simply "riding" the underlying tectonic plates. / Of the more than ten species of Batrachoseps in California, B. attenuatus is the only one found in the greater San Francisco Bay Region." Could this be related to the mystery of the 2 populations of red bellied newts? S. Blackstone Los Angeles

  5. If you haven't done so, you might be interested in the resarch by the late Victor Twitty at Stanford. In his book 'Of Scientists and Salamanders', he mentioned experimental cross breeding between T. torosa and T. rivularis and their release in Pepperwood Creek in Sonoma Co. I wonder if he or his graduate student(s) may have transplanted T. rivularis closer to avoid the 2+ hour trek to Pepperwood Ck? It might be worth it to investigate.


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