As the first face of the forest highlighted in this blog, I thought it prudent to introduce one of the most recognizable members of forested landscapes and one that ties together both terrestrial and aquatic habitats. Most people reading this will have some familiarity with Eastern Newts (also called Red-spotted Newts), especially the terrestrial juveniles called “red efts” that are frequently found on the forest floor and along woodland trails. I vividly recall finding my first red eft as a child; the bright orange popped right out as me as I walked a dirt road with my mother and at first glance I mistook the animal as part of a Reese’s wrapper. While many of us have seen the efts, far fewer people know the newts are aquatic as adults or understand the newt’s complex life history and how that makes them great ambassadors for the conservation of forested landscapes with a diversity habitat types.
Larval Eastern Newt with external gills.
Unlike most other local amphibians which have aquatic larvae and terrestrial adults, Eastern Newts have three life stages: aquatic larvae, terrestrial juveniles (red efts), and aquatic adults (although newts in some populations can skip the eft stage). Larvae hatch in the spring and spend the following few months or so living in wetlands and feeding on invertebrates, after which they metamorphose into bright orange efts in the fall and move to land. They spend between two and seven years as efts and can travel considerable distances from water during that time. They mostly stick to forested habitat, but can be seen in fields near forest edges, meadows, and occasionally in unexpected places. Advertising their toxicity to predators with their bright orange color, the efts spend a lot of time roaming out in the open, even in broad daylight, so people are far more familiar with them than other common salamanders. Eventually they make their way back to wetlands and undergo a second metamorphosis in which their skin turns brown or olive green, their tails broaden (especially males), and they resume an aquatic life.
Adult Eastern Newt eating salamander eggs.
Adult Eastern Newts are primarily aquatic and feed on invertebrates and amphibian eggs. The sorts of wetlands they can live in are highly variable, but beaver ponds, semi-permanent pools, and marshes probably represent some of the most ideal habitat. They survive best in places without many fish, but do a better job co-existing with fish than other local species, possibly owing to their toxicity. If the adult breeding habitat does not hold water year-round, or if the site is unsuitable for overwintering, adults can migrate back to land to estivate. By and large, Eastern Newts seem best-suited to un-fragmented forested landscapes with a patchwork of shifting wetland habitats.
The Newt’s three-phase life history with a prolonged terrestrial period makes the species especially good at finding and colonizing new habitats and makes populations less dependent on specific wetlands. Beavers in forested landscapes provide the exact scenario of shifting wetland habitat newts seem well-adapted to. While most efts stay pretty close to the water bodies from which they hatched, some individuals disperse great distances and colonize new areas. In the case of beaver ponds, eventually a storm will wash out the dams holding back the water and the breeding habitat for newts will be lost, but the odds are that other beaver ponds will have popped up nearby in recent history and that newts from the drained wetland have close relatives roaming the forests in search of, or already breeding in, new wetlands.
While the species is highly adaptable to a variety of situations and does not always prescribe to the life cycle I outlined above, the traditional three-stage life history of Eastern Newts is a perfect example of why forest conservation should not be thought of as just forest conservation. Almost no animals depend on only one habitat, but rather a mosaic of habitats all in close proximity and interconnected. Newts don’t just need forests, they need forests and wetlands, they utilize meadows, and they need connection between those habitats. You can restore all the wetland habitat you want, but it won’t help newts or other woodland-dwelling amphibians much at all if that wetland is separated from the woods by large fields or major highways. As The Orianne Society moves forward with its conservation efforts in the Great Northern Forests we will strive to target those efforts to places that connect larger tracts forested and riparian habitats. By conserving small bits of connecting land we will actually improve the outlook for amphibians, reptiles, and other wildlife at much larger scales. The Eastern Newt just happens to be one of the most recognizable forestland inhabitants that will benefit greatly from such endeavors.