One of the Hudson Valley’s most striking inhabitants will begin to make its presence vividly known as summer progresses: the creature widely known as the red eft. Hikers can hardly miss them along forested paths, their brilliant reddish-orange skin glowing as luridly as neon against the leaf litter. It’s tough to resist the urge to pick up these not-too-shy amphibians, whose bodies, one to three inches in length, are arguably the natural world’s closest visual approximation of Gummies.
You shouldn’t, though, tempting though it may be. It’s not good for the little critters: Human handling damages their skin’s protective mucus covering, leaving the animal exposed to attack by bacteria and other pathogens. That skin also exudes a toxin that deters predators, which partially explains the eft’s casual aplomb in taking a public stroll. It’s not lethal to humans, like a poison dart frog, but can cause inflammation if, say, children get some on their hands and then rub their eyes.
Many who encounter efts in the woods are also tempted to bring one home for a pet. This also isn’t a good idea, according to experts, unless you have plenty of experience keeping amphibians. For one thing, red efts are prone to dehydration and won’t thrive for long in a room with a temperature over 72 degrees. They also won’t eat commercial newt food; they require a highly varied diet comprised of tiny invertebrates such as flightless fruit flies, ten-day-old crickets, springtails, bean beetle larvae and sowbugs (available from online dealers), plus termites, millipedes, tiny earthworms, beetles and other small leaf-litter invertebrates for variety. The fire salamander(Salamandra salamandra), which you can purchase in a pet store, is a much more appropriate starter amphibian.
Some may be surprised to hear that a “red eft” isn’t a separate species: It’s actually the intermediate growth phase of the Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) – and the only part of its life cycle when that creature is bright orange. Born in water, the larvae are olive-green with feathery gills, and don’t develop lungs until they transform into efts and become temporarily terrestrial. Upon reaching the three-to-five-inch-long newt phase, they return to the water once again. Their rough skin turns smooth and their rounded tail flattens (vertically) for better propulsion underwater. And at maturity, their color pattern is greenish once again, with small black dots scattered on the back and a row of black-bordered reddish-orange spots on each side.
But unless you go exploring with an aquarium net to fish up specimens from ponds, pools and streams, the only Eastern newt you’re very likely to meet face-to-face is the red eft. Say hi, and admire their undeniable cuteness; but then, let them go on their way unmolested. To learn more, visit www.dec.ny.gov/animals/67022.html. And if you’d like to help the efts survive their seasonal overland migration, by becoming a volunteer with the Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Project, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://on.ny.gov/1iDfCFh.