For individuals who like to observe, watch, or record herptiles (reptile and amphibians) in the wild, the winter can often be a long and dismal season.

Fortunately for me, my favourite group of herptiles are the salamanders, and these amphibians can be found year round if you know where to look. In a previous piece, I wrote about my excursions to observe mudpuppies (large neotenic salamanders). However, the mudpuppy is not the only salamander species that can be seen in the winter. The Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) is another type of ”winter salamander.”

Eastern newts are semi-aquatic salamanders belonging to the Salamandridae family. Most individuals who encounter this species do so when the newt is in its Red eft stage (terrestrial juvenile). At this point in its life, the newt is a vibrant orange colour with red spots. When the newt matures after several years, its colour changes to mostly olive green (dorsal surface), with bright yellow/orange bellies that are often mottled with spots. The tail also flattens and becomes more paddle-like.

In this semi-aquatic stage the newts spend less time on land and primarily occur in the water, either in permanent or semi-permanent bodies. Habitat includes well vegetated ponds, marshes, swamps, canals and even ditches. Nature seldom holds absolutes, and the Eastern newt is no exception. Therefore, under certain circumstances adult newts may become more land bound. Such factors that contribute to newts becoming more terrestrial include decreasing water levels and higher temperatures. Extended land stays can result in tail fins decreasing and more granular skin.

Unlike the Red eft stage, adult newts are not frequently seen due to their more aquatic life styles. Especially since the newts blend in well to aquatic vegetation. However, under special circumstances a myriad of these salamanders can be viewed at once!

It has been well documented that in ponds that do not freeze to the bottom, Eastern newts can often be seen active under the layer of ice. Pitkin and Tilley (1982) observed an unusual aggregate of adult newts in a Massachusetts pond in the winter. Large numbers of adults had gathered together in ice-free areas of the pond. The exact functions of these aggregates are unknown.

In the beginning of February 2015, I was very lucky to observe one of these newt gatherings in person. I travelled nearly two hours from my home to reach a pond to see the newts. A small ice-free section, only a few meters across, allowed for viewing. Here around 60-100 newts were seen! Some could be seen resting on the bottom, while others would periodically swim for short bursts. Several were temporarily placed in a container to take a photo of them with ease. After they were returned to the pond.

What a wonderful experience to see so many salamanders in the dead of winter! However, despite the numerous observations of these newts, we should not become complacent in regards to their conservation.

Many newts are killed every Spring on roads when they migrate to breeding sites. If someone sees a newt on the road, and it is safe to do so, please stop (wet the hands if possible), scope up the newt and gently take it across – in the direction it was headed! To avoid running over salamanders, if possible do not drive during dawn and dusk hours, on wet spring nights, or during or right after rain storms. Taking alternate routes that do not cut through forests or wetlands can also reduce the risk of hitting salamanders. If you must drive, be sure to travel slowly and keep an eye out for salamanders. Be alert to listen for Spring peeper frogs and Wood frogs. The calls of Spring peepers and Wood frogs means that their are amphibian breeding pools in the area. In such regions be extra watchful for salamanders.

As Eastern newts live primarily in aquatic habitats, they need pristine water to survive. Degradation to their habitat often occurs via siltation, pollutants, and even agricultural runoff. Landowners can help by allowing buffers of tall grass, trees, saplings, shrubs, ferns, and other natural plants to grow around the edge of ponds and wetlands. Such buffers help protect against erosion and various forms of runoff. Land owners are also encouraged to take measures to prevent soil erosion/siltation. The addition of silt and clay into aquatic areas can severely degrade the salamander’s habitat. Silt and clay also fill in important depressions under rocks and sunken debris which are used by the salamanders as cover for themselves, their eggs, and are used as areas to find prey. Use silt fences or sediment traps when doing construction or landscaping to stop sediment from reaching the water. Planting cover crops, native plants or shrubs can also prevent erosion. Dense crop stands physically slow down the velocity of rainfall before it contacts the soil surface, preventing soil splashing and erosive surface runoff.

By making these simple efforts, individuals can help ensure that our Eastern Newts stay numerous!

By Matt Ellerbeck

Reference: Pitkin, R.B. & S.G. Tilley 1982 An Unusual Aggregation of Adult Notophthalmus viridescens. Copeia, 1982(1): 185-186.

Photo: Several adult Eastern newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) from the pond aggregate © Matt Ellerbeck

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