Monday, February 2, 2015

Newtlandia

Red-bellied newts spend most of their lives underground and we know little about what they do there.   
The genetic results for the unusual population of red-bellied newts were in. Two newts from the newly discovered population in Santa Clara County were compared to forty newts from the main range in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt Counties. The populations were genetically indistinguishable from each other.

They were all the same. We were stunned.

This meant we could not determine if the previously unknown Stevens Creek newts were a naturally disjunct population or were introduced by humans from the northern range. These were surprising results for a salamander species.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Newt Egg Crawl

Monte Bello Open Space Preserve is split by Stevens Creek and the San Andreas Fault  
 I had a third theory about how red-bellied newts arrived in the Stevens Creek watershed. We doubted the lost race theory because surely some of the thousands of people who live in, visit or study the Santa Cruz Mountains every year would have previously discovered them. And likewise, a recent, successful introduction by humans seems questionable because their strong homing instinct would send the newts plodding across roads and over cliff edges to their death, difficult conditions to get a breeding population established at a new location. Instead, maybe there was a "wormhole" - a passage through space and time that delivered red-bellied newts to this remote corner of Santa Clara County without swimming the deadly saline waters of San Francisco Bay.

Excuse me for mixing up astrophysics and geology. California has spectacular geology that sometimes seems as if it is from science fiction. Perhaps, across the epochs, there was an unusual geologic event equivalent to a wormhole that explains how red-bellied newts arrived and thrived in the Stevens Creek watershed.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Pepperwood Creek Affair

Dr.Victor C. Twitty (left) and academic colleagues, 1955, Amherst
Photograph from Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg memorial website   
In 1953 through a fishing buddy, Dr. Victor C. Twitty was introduced to a rancher who owned fourteen-thousand acres in rural Sonoma County. Twitty asked the rancher if he could conduct newt research there and the rancher agreed even providing a small house near an amphibian-rich stream. "Thus the Pepperwood Creek Affair was born" and Twitty established a newt field research center far away in miles and in focus from his academic and administrative responsibilities at Stanford University.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Of Salamanders and Men

A red-bellied newt in hand in the field  
"In addition to being a delightful place to live, northern California offers an asset that is perhaps less well known to the millions who have been flocking there in recent years: In my somewhat prejudiced opinion, its newts are unrivaled anywhere in the world!"- Victor Chandler Twitty, Of Scientists and Salamanders, 1966
While they were sorting through the genetic code, the Berkeley team asked us to keep quiet about the unusual sightings of red-bellied newts in Santa Clara County until they had published their results. As a child of two university professors, I was not surprised by this request. So we did what we were best at, tromping around in the forest to learn more about this population especially where they lived.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Commander Salamander

"Absolutely!"
Daniel Portik, Sean Reilly, David Wake, Michelle Koo of University of California - Berkeley,
Ranger John Lloyd, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District   
On a drippy day in February 2010, we assembled a team of experts in the field to confirm the amateur-level observation of red-bellied newts in Santa Clara County, California. I lead Sean Reilly and Daniel Portik, two graduate students at the University of California - Berkeley, on a long hike down the west side of the Stevens Creek watershed. Ranger John Lloyd drove Dr. David Wake and Michelle Koo of Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology to a trailhead on the easterly side of the watershed where they hiked a final leg into the same canyon across a different set of tributaries. Our goal was to meet somewhere on the trail, hopefully where one group was busily cataloguing lots of red-bellied newts, or so I nervously joked.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Bucket Theory

Preserved specimen of California newt at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley.
This is specimen MVZ:Herp:8101.
Photograph from the Museum's Collections Database at     
http://mvz.berkeley.edu   
Late at night I was pouring through field guides, scientific publications, and online catalogues of museum specimens, but they didn't give me answers as to how red-bellied newts arrived in the Stevens Creek watershed. The little creatures we found were so far out of their reported range, if I was going to get any sleep, I needed the help of experts. So I started calling around.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Newt or Not A Newt?

Eyed by newt on the landslide road.
Is it a loathsome creature or a fairy?   
When is a newt not a newt?  When it is a lizard?  When it is a salamander?

In this post, I will briefly sort out the different salamanders that occur in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. This info should answer some of the questions that have come up so far and will help with the odd twists that are revealed in upcoming posts of the Mystery of the Red-Bellied Newt series.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

First Ever Red-Bellied Newt

As it walks through the forest litter, the red-bellied newt with its dark brown back and black eyes momentarily flashes the bright-red underside of its hands   
With photographic proof and reliable eyewitness accounts of red-bellied newts in the Santa Cruz Mountains, it was time to go looking for them myself. My first few trips to the streams and trails above Stevens Creek are unsuccessful. I find no brightly colored newts and only see a few of the common orange species, the California and rough-skinned newts. I'm not surprised. Newts spend large amounts of their lives under things - under logs, leaf litter, and in burrows underground. It's rain that gets the newts moving. I might have to wait for the second or third rainstorm to see any newts crawling towards the creeks, and if the population of the newly discovered red-bellied newts was small, it might take many, many trips before I stumble onto them.