As an adult, the red-spotted newt is a tiny dragon no longer than the average man’s index finger. But the amphibians are masters of change; they actually have three life stages. Their even-smaller, four-legged, terrestrial stage (see photo; they’re called “efts”) finds them among the rocks and leaf litter of eastern Canada, including cottage country.
Like a lot of amphibians, red-spotted newts begin life in the water, with gills and a tail. About four months after they’re born in the spring, they transform into rust-coloured efts. The red body and bright ruby spots are a warning to snakes, toads, birds, and other predators. The newt’s skin, in particular, its tail, contains a toxin. It’s the same one that’s found in Japanese fugu—the sometimes-lethal puffer fish. Yikes! Don’t eat a newt’s tail, anybody. If an eft does lose its tail, or even its legs, it can regrow both.
Newts spend two to four years as juveniles. Then, it’s time to adult. The newt’s skin becomes smoother, it changes colour—to a much drabber olive-green—and fins grow on the top and the bottom of the tail. Why? Because adult red-spotted newts are aquatic. Again. They return to the water to procreate and live out the rest of their days.
Like other creatures that reach adulthood later in life, newts can live longer than some of our amphibians. The average lifespan is seven to 10 years; a few hardy souls survive until 15, even in the wild. (Spring peepers only live for about three years; red-backed salamanders, four years; and leopard frogs, five years.) Still, these amphibians are sensitive to pollution just like other frogs, toads, and salamanders, and absorb water contaminants through their skin. That’s yet another reason to take care of your lake and provide good shoreline habitat for its dwellers.