Adult in "unkenreflex" defensive posture in which the brightly-colored underside is displayed as a warning. Santa Cruz County
The California Newt holds its tail mostly straight out behind its body in this posture.
Compare with the curled tail of the sometimes sympatric Rough-skinned Newt.
A careful look underneath the fallen branches and bark of the dead tree shown above on a wet winter afternoon turned up 16 salamanders of 4 species - one Arboreal Salamander, two Coast Range Newts, one Yellow-eyed Ensatina, and 12 California Slender Salamanders, proving that wood debris on a forest floor is an important microhabitat for salamanders. Along with fallen debris, tree bark, tree cavities, root holes, and splits in trees are also useful habitat for many kinds of wildlife, including birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, but dead trees and their debris are often removed indiscriminately without consideration for wildlife.
Signs indicating a road closure to protect newts as they migrate to
and from breeding areas during the rainy season, Contra Costa County.
Marin County sign made by Mrs. Honda's third grade class at Manor school.
Sign at dried up breeding pond in November, Contra Costa County
Same sign in late January in a full pond during a wet winter.
Sign in Marin County
California Newts on the move in the woods on a Fall morning.
A big ball of newts forms in the breeding pond when a male and female in amplexus are approached by several male newts who want to take the female.
Male and female newts in amplexus in the breeding pond. The males hold on tight and swim around the pond using their huge tails. One uses the toes on his hind feet to stroke a female, probably to make her receptive to take his spermatophore.
Views of a large mass of female newts in the breeding pond, as they go about laying and securing their eggs.
Female newts repeatedly attack and bite at newt egg sacs, probably in an attempt to eat them. Newts have been known to eat the eggs of their own kind.
Solitary male newts patrol the edge of the pond at the beginning of the breeding season, waiting for females to arrive. Females are seen crawling overland and entering the water.
Adults are 2 3/4 - 3 1/2 inches long (7 - 8.9 cm) from snout to vent, and 4.9 - 7.8 inches (12.5 -20 cm) in total length.
A stocky, medium-sized salamander with rough, grainy skin in the terrestrial phase, and no costal grooves.
Color and Pattern
Terrestrial adults are yellowish-brown to dark brown above, pale yellow to orange below.
(There is less contrast between dorsal and ventral color on sides than with T. granulosa.)
The eyelids and the area below the eyes are lighter than the rest of the head.
The iris is silvery to pale yellow.
The eyes appear to extend to or beyond the outline of the head when viewed from above, (unlike T. granulosa.)
Male / Female Differences
Breeding males develop smooth skin that looks wrinkled and baggy underwater, a flattened tail to aid with swimming, a swollen cloaca, and rough nuptial pads on the undersides of the feet to aid in holding onto females during amplexus.
Aquatic larvae are the pond type, light yellow above with two dark regular narrow bands on the back.
Rough-skinned when in the terrestrial phase.
Breathes through lungs.
Terrestrial and diurnal, often seen crawling over land in the daytime, becoming aquatic when breeding.
In some permanent bodies of water, adults retain their aquatic breeding phase characteristics (smooth skin, flattened tail) and live in the water year-round.
Sometimes seen moving in large numbers to aquatic breeding sites during or after rains during breeding season.
Terrestrial newts spend the hot dry summer in moist habitats under woody debris, or in rock crevices and animal burrows, but can sometimes be seen wandering overland in moist habitat or conditions any time of the year.
Longevity is not known, but it has been estimated that California Newts can live for more than 20 years. (Amphibiaweb)
When threatened, a newt will assume a swaybacked defensive pose, closing its eyes, extending its limbs to the sides, and holding its tail straight out. This "unken reflex" exposes its bright orange ventral surface coloring which is a warning to potential predators that the newt is poisonous.
California Newts have poisonous skin secretions containing the powerful neurotoxin tetrodotoxin that repel most predators. The poison is widespread throughout the skin, muscles, and blood, and even the eggs. It can cause death in many animals, including humans, if eaten in sufficient quantity. (One study estimated that 25,000 mice could be killed from the skin of one Rough-skinned newt, the most toxic of the Taricha species.)
The poison can also be ingested through a mucous membrane or a cut in the skin, so care should always be taken when handling newts.
Larvae are not poisonous and are preyed on by adult newts and other predators. Chemical cues from adult newts trigger larvae to seek cover.
In most locations the Common Gartersnake, Thamnophis sirtalis, has a high resistance to tetrodotoxin which allows it to prey on Pacific Newts, genus Taricha. Thamnophis atratus and Thamnophis couchii have also been found with a strong resistance to tetrodotoxin that allows them to eat Pacific Newts.
Thamnophis elegans has also been found eating Taricha torosa in San Luis Obispo County.
An arms race between T. sirtalis and the tetrodoxin poison contained in Taricha has been documented, with newt toxicity varying by location and snake resistance to the toxin also varying by location.
(Edmund D. Brodie III. Patterns, Process, and the Parable of the Coffeepot Incident: Arms Races Between Newts and Snakes from Landscapes to Molecules. From In the Light of Evolution: Essays from the Laboratory and Field edited by Jonathan Losos (Roberts and Company Publishers). 2010.)
According to Davis and Brattstrom, California Newts produce a repertoire of sounds. (Davis, J. R. and B. H. Brattstrom. 1975. Sounds produced by the California newts, Taricha torosa. Herpetologica 31:409-412.) The sounds are very faint and difficult to hear over environmental sounds in the field. They did not determine how the newts were able to physically produce these different sounds. Breeding phase Coast Range Newts from Orange County were observed and recorded in a laboratory in a naturalistic setting where they were able to continue their typical social behaviors.
Three types of sounds were documented: clicks, squeaks, and whistles.
Clicks were the most commonly heard sounds. They were made when newts were put in an unfamiliar location, and when they were confronted by another newt. (The clicks appeared to be used to establish territories.)
Squeaks were made when a newt was picked up, and were sometimes accompanied by the newt twisting its body. The purpose of the squeak might be to startle a predator or to advertise the newt's toxicity.
Whistles were observed during breeding activity when a newt was touched in the middle of the back by a human or another newt, such as when a male newt climbed onto the back of another male newt. It was produced by males and females. The sound was not observed and could not be artificially evoked two weeks after breeding was over. This sound appears to be used in sex recognition and to establish hierarchical relationships, similar to the release call of a frog.
Diet and Feeding
Adults eat small invertebrates such as worms, snails, slugs, sowbugs, and insects. They also consume amphibian eggs and larvae, including newt larvae and newt eggs. A small nestling bird was found in the stomach of one newt.
When feeding on the ground, adults feed by projecting a sticky tongue to capture prey. Aquatic adults open their mouth and suck the prey in.
Larvae eat small aquatic invertebrates, decomposing organic matter, and possibly other newt larvae.
Reproduction is aquatic.
Adults proably reach reproductive maturity in their third year.
The breeding season lasts 6 - 12 weeks.
Adults migrate from locations on land to ponds, reservoirs, and sluggish pools in streams to breed, typically beginning anywhere from late December to February, depending on rainfall amounts.
Populations that breed in stream pools migrate later, typically in March and April, after the stream flooding has subsided.
Migration may take several weeks and cover large distances. (In one study, newts were recaptured up to nearly two miles (3,200 m) away from the breeding pond where they were originally captured and marked.)
Newts have a strong homing instinct and typically return to the same breeding site each time they breed. This homing behavior has not been explained, but experiments show that it invoves a sense of their body position, but it could also involve the sense of smell or a form of celestial navigation.
Males arrive first, and stay longer than females.
In the water, males transform into their aquatic phase, with smooth skin that lightens in color, swollen cloacal lips, and tails enlarged and flattened to help them swim. Females develop smoother skin, but do not undergo as much change as males.
Males patrol the edges of the breeding pond waiting from females to enter the water. When a female enters, she may be mobbed by a number of males who struggle to hold on to her until one male grabs on and cannot be removed.
After a period of amplexus, where the male clutches the female from above, the male deposits a spermatophore and the female picks it up with her cloaca.
Females lay and attach a spherical egg mass to submerged vegetation, branches, or rocks.
Southern populations tend to lay egg masses under rocks in quiet stream pools where northern and central populations tend to attach egg masses to vegetation.
Egg masses contain from 7 - 47 eggs. It is estimated from ovarian counts of 130 - 160 that females lay from 3 - 6 masses each.
Egg masses are attached just below the surface of the water. If the water rises significantly or lowers and strands the eggs, the eggs will die.
Incubation times may vary at various locations, from 14 - 52 days.
The larval stage lasts several months.
The average larval period at one location in the Bay Area was observed to be from March to October.
Larvae transform and begin to live on land at the end of the Summer or in early Fall.
Overwintering by T. torosa larvae is not common, but a few examples have been documented.
Larvae that were completing their metamorphosis were observed in April and May in Southern California in 1909. (Storer, 1925, cited by Kuchta on Amphibiaweb.)
(Typically those larvae would have transformed in the previous Summer or early Fall if they had not overwintered.)
Overwintering larvae were also observed in Riverside County in April 2001 (Herpetological Review 36(3), 2005)
Metamorphosis may be triggered by pond drying in some waters, but other factors that influence metamorphosis have not been determined.
Metamorphosis takes about 2 weeks, as the tail fin is absorbed and the gills are reduced.
Transformed juveniles leave the water with adult coloration and characteristics and with a trace of gills remaining.
At this time they cannot survive if kept in the water.
Juveniles leave the natal pond and travel overland where it is assumed they take refuge and do not return to the water until they breed.
Found in wet forests, oak forests, chaparral, and rolling grasslands. In southern California, drier chaparral, oak woodland, and grasslands are used.
Endemic to California.
Found along the coast and coast range mountains from Mendocino county south to San Diego county.
A disjunct population is found in the southern Sierra Nevada from northern Kern county at Breckenridge Mountain north to a zone of intergradation (or hybridization) with the Sierra Newt along the Kaweah River in Tulare County.
(Formerly, newts throughout all of the Sierra Nevada were recognized as a different subspecies, T. t. sierra - Sierra Newt, which is now known to range only north of the range of this species in the Sierra Nevada.)
Reports of sightings from northwestern Baja California have never been verified. (Kuchta, 2005)
Co-exists with T. granulosa from Santa Cruz county north to Mendocino county.
From sea level to 4,200 ft. (1,280 m.) on Mt. Hamilton. (Stebbins & McGinnis 2012)
Notes on Taxonomy
Two subspecies of Taricha torosa have been traditionally recognized: T. t. sierrae, and T. t. torosa. In 2007, Shawn R. Kuchta1 showed that the two subspecies of Taricha torosa "constitute distinct evolutionary lineages and merit recognition as separate species: T. torosa (California newt) and T. sierrae (Sierra newt). " The contact zone between these two species is the southern Sierra Nevada with a "hybrid zone centered along the Kaweah River in Tulare County."
A geographically isolated population of T. torosa in San Diego county has very warty skin and was once recognized as either a different species
T. klauberi, or as a different subspecies T. t. klauberi, the Warty Newt, but "...it was later determined that the warty phenotype was pathological..."
Analysis has determined that these San Diego county newts are "genetically differentiated, demographically independent, geographically disjunct, and have a history of isolation relative to the coastal populations." (Shawn Kuchta and An-Ming Tan, 2006)
Warty newts have also been reported from the San Francisco Peninsula and from Atascadero.
Genetic variation exists between newts found north and south of the Salinas Valley.
Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)
San Diego County populations: Triturus klauberi - Warty Newt (Bishop 1943)
Some verified populations in San Diego County are now extinct. Southern California populations have suffered population declines due to habitat loss and alteration caused by human activity, and from introduced predatory mosquitofish, crayfish, and bullfrogs, which eat the non-poisonous larvae and eggs. Breeding ponds have been destroyed for development, and stream pools used for breeding have been destroyed by sedimentation caused by wildfires.
Protected from take with a sport fishing license in 2013.
(Rathke, in Eschscholtz, 1833)
Rathke, 1833 - in Eschscholtz, Zool. Atlas, Pt. 5, p. 12, pl. 21, fig. 15
Jones, Lawrence L. C. , William P. Leonard, Deanna H. Olson, editors. Amphibians of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle Audubon Society, 2005.
1Herpetologica, 63(3), 2007, 332–350 E 2007 by The Herpetologists’ League, Inc.
Contact Zones and Species Limits: Hybridization Between Lineages of the California Newt, Taricha torosa, in the southern Sierra Nevada
Shawn R. Kuchta
2 Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 89, 213–239. With 8 figures
Lineage diversification on an evolving landscape: phylogeography of the California newt, Taricha torosa (Caudata: Salamandridae)
Shawn R. Kuchta and An-Ming Tan
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the November 2020 California "Special Animals List" and the November 2020 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and available here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals. You can check the link to see if there are more recent lists.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.
The CA Department of Fish and Wildlife listing refers to Coast Range Newts from Monterey County & south only.
Newts north of Monterey County and in the Sierra Nevada are not Species of Special Concern.
NatureServe Global Ranking
Apparently Secure—Uncommon but not rare; some cause for long-term concern due to declines or other factors.
NatureServe State Ranking
Apparently Secure—Uncommon but not rare in the state; some cause for long-term concern due to
declines or other factors.