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April 2012

Newtie Show

Solving an amphibian mating mystery

I LIVE IN WOODGATE, on the southwestern edge of the Adirondacks. Be­hind my home is a bog owned by an absentee landowner none of my neighbors have ever met. One spring day at church, my neighbor Star Livingstone informed me there were hundreds of newts breeding in a pool out in back of the bog and that the males were grabbing the females not around the waist but by the neck. She said this to me the way normal people might say, “I saw a robin today. Spring is here.” But we are not normal people.

My wife, Linda, and I met Star and her husband, Jeff, because we are weird in a similar way. We saw each others’ tracks while we were skiing and snowshoeing with our dogs. There were dog tracks and ski tracks and snowshoe tracks coming from their home, and dog tracks and ski tracks and snowshoe tracks coming from our home. This went on for a month, until Star and Jeff came over, in­troduced themselves and we had coffee. I knew we would like them be­cause I had followed their tracks one day just far enough to see that they had a 30-foot-high tepee frame in their yard. When we finally met, my suspicions were confirmed.

So we, at different times, snowshoed or skied out to look at the newts. This is the kind of thing we do. There is a brief window of time for optimum newt viewing. The sun gets warm enough to melt the pool in the meandering stream on the edge of the wetland, but the air is cold enough to keep the two or three feet of snow, still covering most of the bog, nice and crisp. And, like Star said, the males do, indeed, grab the females by the neck.

For me, this question of why male newts grab females around the neck, in­stead of the waist, as one might assume, goes back to my childhood.

In 1984 in Whitney Point, near Binghamton, on a similar spring day, I was on vacation from seventh grade and found newts in a pond near the house my dad was renting from a farmer. They were the same species as the newts in Woodgate. I recall being perplexed. Why grab the females by the neck? It didn’t seem to fit—anatomically speaking. But all the males were doing it; at least I assumed they were males. I intended to solve the mystery. So I scooped some up with a net I had rigged from a colander duct-taped to a broom handle, took them home and put them in a 10-gallon fish tank. The males had a little dance. They seemed to shake their tails to entice the females closer so they could grab them. They had little black nubs on their back legs for traction.

I never figured it out. There was no Internet back in those days, so I consulted a field guide at the library that helped me identify the amphibian as Notophthalmus viridescens, or the red-spotted newt. The guide went into frustratingly little detail on their mating behavior. But today, after a Google search, I’ve learned that male newts aren’t attempting to in­seminate the females, but instead are communicating with them through phero­mones. He grabs her around the neck, fans his tail in a j-shape and rubs her nose with his cheek, funneling pher­omones to her and stimulating her olfactory centers. The male eventually lets go and leaves a spermataphore some distance away, and the female comes by and picks it up in her cloaca. Later, she lays up to 4,000 eggs, a few at a time, around the pond.

What I gather is that by grabbing her and inundating her with the pher­omone, the male is making sure she knows which spermataphore is his be­cause they won’t be together when she picks up the bundle. It seems like a strangely remote way to mate. It’s like the male is saying, “Hey, this is me! This is how I smell, OK? Aren’t I great?” Then, after a while, he says, “Well, gotta run. But I will leave you a package to remember me by. You will know it’s mine because it will have my smell. So long, it was nice to grab you in a headlock. Take care.”

I’m anthropomorphizing, obviously. If it weren’t for this tendency, I might not be as fond of newts as I am. I think we like them because they are like us. Not cross-country-skiing dog owners—hu­mans, I mean, in the broad sense. Getting right down to it, the reason we have a backbone; four limbs, with five digits on each limb; two eyes; two nostrils; a brain; a heart; and lungs is be­cause they do. They had them first.

So when I see a little red eft, the land-dwelling form of the newt, crossing Route 28, I help him along to avoid getting squashed. These creatures have helped hold the universe together all this time. It’s the least I can do.