By Madeleine Foote
When the winter rains come, we humans tend to remain inside, but for the California Coast Range Newt, the rains are a signal to leave their summer homes and move to the water. If you are lucky enough to see one this season, be content with just looking. One of five salamander species in California, this newt’s skin produces a highly toxic poison called tetrodotoxin that can cause respiratory and cardiac failure.
The average California Coast Range Newt is 5-8 inches long, with a stocky, muscular body and legs that bend downward at the elbows. It has four toes on each leg and big eyes that extend past the outline of its head. The newt’s brown color lets it blend in with the leaves and brush it hides in. If you see his yellowish-orange underbody, however, watch out! When threatened, the newt will stick its tail straight out and bend backwards, exposing the bright underbelly as a warning to predators.
This “gold belly” newt likes to dine on small invertebrates such as worms, snails, slugs, insects, insect eggs, and amphibian larvae, but has been known to become cannibalistic when other foods are unavailable.
As the name would suggest, the California Coast Range Newt can be found in the coastal regions from Mendocino to San Diego counties, living in oak forests, chaparral, woodlands, and rolling grasslands. In the summer, the newt spends its time in moist habitats: under woody or leafy debris, in rock crevices, and in animal burrows. During the rainy season, the newt migrates to ponds, reservoirs, lakes, and slow-moving streams.
Mating and Life Span
When the rainy season has begun in earnest, the newt focuses on romance. Mating season lasts 6-12 weeks, when large numbers of the newt move together, often traveling across roadways and highways. Right here in Contra Costa county’s Tilden Regional Park, South Park Drive is closed between November and March to allow for newts to cross the road to their breeding grounds in Wildcat Creek. Also, dedicated volunteers in El Sobrante gather each year to escort newts across a drop structure to reach their breeding grounds along Castro Creek.
Baby newts look like legged tadpoles, but by early fall, the newborn newts will develop a more warty skin, the orange coloring typical of adults, and will transition fully to living on land. California Coast Range Newts are thought to live 20 years or more, with few natural predators except the common garter snake, which has developed a genetic mutation against the newt’s poison.
The Coastal Newt is listed as a species of special concern in California, but has no federal conservation status. Its biggest threats are habitat loss and degradation, and predation of eggs and larvae from invasive species. It is illegal in California to have or sell these newts as pets, and they are best left to roam in the leaves and creeks of our watersheds.