Minding Your 'Manders
Nicholas A. Tonelli
“Mind the ’mander!” That’s what we say when we’re mountain biking and one of those adorable coral- colored spotted salamanders is crossing the trail. They are the most precious things, with their miniscule, perfectly formed toes and their tiny, thrashing tails. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve almost wrecked trying to avoid the little darlings.
I was never sure, however, if what I was seeing was a newt or a salamander, so I thought I should do a little research and get my facts straight. It turns out that newts are a subgroup of salamanders. Just as all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, all newts are salamanders but not all salamanders are newts. The red spotted newt is what we typically see here in the woods or the yard; it is in the “eft” or terrestrial juvenile stage. Newts are typically an aquatic amphibian, but there are terrestrial newts as well as aquatic salamanders. Most, if not all, return to the water to breed. The aquatic larvae can regenerate limbs, eyes, and other body parts—how helpful is that!
Salamanders are predators, eating insects, worms, and spiders. The newts’ bright coloring is a warning to other predators that there are toxins in its skin. If you’re a person who just has to pick them up and marvel at them (I am), don’t worry too much. As long as their skin secretions don’t come in contact with our own mucous membranes and we wash our hands after handling, all is well. Just be gentle as their skin is thin and sensitive. That quality makes them, along with other amphibians, useful as bioindicators, meaning they can clue us in when things are not going well environmentally. Their presence or absence can indicate the health of an ecosystem. In Europe and the United Kingdom, where newt populations are declining due to pollution and habitat destruction, the powers-that-be are taking steps to rectify the situation.
A couple of final facts on salamanders and newts: there is a whole section in Wikipedia about the origin of the word “newt” which I found particularly fascinating and, if you are a word lover, you might, too. The “eft” term, for instance, is a derivation of something from Old or Middle English. And there are no ’manders in Australia or Antarctica.