What’s Newt?

I’m working on an exciting new project! A friend has asked me to illustrate a book she has written. I don’t want to give too much away before it is published, but I will say that I need to learn to render Eastern Newts well. This little critter is a favorite of mine. It has been spotted frequently on our family vacations because in our homeschooling years, “vacation rental” was synonymous with “Virginia state park cabin” and those were tucked into protected forests.

KHertzler_RedEft
The Eastern Newt is called a Red Eft while in its terrestrial stage, shown here. The brilliant color warns predators of toxins in the skin. Photo by Kelli Hertzler.

Salamander Safari

I contacted James Madison University biology professor William Flint, who researches salamanders, to ask if there were any opportunities coming up for the author and me to learn more. He invited us to tag along on a nighttime field trip with students to an area in the George Washington National Forest that has multiple ponds. He assured me newts would be there and maybe some other things, too. There was plenty to see! The salamanders had begun their migration into the ponds. The amphibian/reptile species list for the night included Spotted Salamander, Redbacked Salamander, Cricket Frog, Snapping Turtle and more newts than you could shake a stick at.  Between ponds, I got to ask the experts questions about newts. I hope to go back later this year to look for larvae.

Adding to the adventure, my friend and I managed to get lost in the national forest trying to find the rendezvous point. We were blessed by a young man who went out of his way late at night to help us find the ponds after we asked him for directions. And I left my backpack (with car key inside) at the last pond, requiring another trek into the forest to find it. (Sorry, Billy! You were a good guide to take us back there!) It was past midnight by the time we made it back to our Burg. By then, we were both really hungry so we came back to my house and devoured pork and apples that had been slow cooking in a Crock Pot all day.

Learning about the Eastern Newt

These little guys have such a wide geographical range and are so adaptable to environmental pressures, it is difficult to describe their life cycle. Accounts I read based on small populations contradict each other to the point that I have needed to reread to verify the authors are observing the same species. The basic life plan is egg> aquatic larva> terrestrial eft> aquatic adult. But they pick and choose their way through that flow chart like a choose-your-own-adventure. Skipping stages, bouncing back and forth between eft and adult, keeping their gills from the larval stage while reproducing as adults. Rebels who thumbed their little noses at the neat diagrams in the salamander science book.

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Quick nature journal sketches by flashlight. Color added later.

If I have whet your appetite to learn more about this tiny wonder, do a search for the scientific name:  Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens.  This is the subspecies that is found in my neck of the woods. It’s also call the Red Spotted Newt and the Red Eft, which refers specifically to the terrestrial stage.

It’s all fascinating stuff for the citizen scientist in me. But the artist side of me loves that they have striking colors and patterns, tiny little limbs that don’t seem like they should work and eyes that appear almost expressive. They are ADORABLE little critters in every stage of development and a joy to draw.

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While the book really doesn’t require in-depth scientific information, I am enjoying a thorough study. I think the illustrations will benefit in unexpected ways if I have a good understanding of the newt’s life cycle, development and habitat.
These study pages were done from photo references; some of which are my own photos.
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My work area. Where watercolor and microscopes go together like peas and carrots. The quart container, filled at one of the ponds we visited, contains moss, dead leaves and a whole world of tiny things waiting to be discovered.
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Some of the discoveries the scope brings to light. I don’t even know what most of this is! (That’s the best part.) I call the process Micro-Nature Journaling. 
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4 thoughts on “What’s Newt?

  1. That’s a fascinating story – what a wonderful (mostly) experience. My childhood vacations were cabins at Douthat State Park, where I spent the weeks catching Red Efts, too! Loved them! Had no idea you had them in your childhood, too. I have NEVER seen them anywhere except Douthat, so I am glad for your recent experience.

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