Red eft season
It’s eft season, at least in my neck of the woods. Last week they were all over the edges of the road, where daisies and poison ivy grow, little red salamanders with black-ringed spots.
We had to be careful not to step on them, as I kept reminding the dog.
In time, our native amphibians will grow to 4 or 5 inches long and return to the water. Right now they are less than 2 inches.
Officially called the red-spotted newt, they are found all over the Northeast, from Canada to the Carolinas. DEC’s maps show them to be widespread in New York, but they seem more regionalized to me. I never saw one when I was growing up downstate, and I’ve never seen any near my sisters’ houses in the mid-Hudson Valley. But in the Southern Adirondacks where I live, we see them all the time.
My kids learned at a young age to pick them up gently, let them walk across their hands, and then put them back down again, not far from where they started.
We move them out of the road or the center of a hiking path, so they won’t be stepped on or run over, but my daughter was always concerned they’d get lost if we moved them too far. And she was convinced I could ruin a young eft’s life by moving it to the wrong side of the road, the side it had just come from.
Eft is what they are called during their land-and-lung stage. Like all amphibians, they hatch from eggs laid in the water, and spend their youth — the larval stage — swimming, breathing through gills and growing legs.
As efts, they move onto land and develop lungs. It’s their prettiest stage, when they are bright orange or red, with even brighter spots partly outlined in black.
They hit land at about a half-inch long, and grow until they are around 4 inches, which can take anywhere from three to seven years. They like it wet, so you are more likely to see them on rainy days, in the early morning dew, or hiding under leaf litter in the woods.
As adults, they head back to water for their final years. By then they have changed from orange to olive-green, with yellow or brownish spots. Their tails thicken and become stronger for swimming.
Early this spring I was lucky enough to see some in the shallow parts of the lake near us, swimming eel-like, with their feet and legs pulled to the sides.
They lay up to 200 eggs in the early spring, a few at a time, attach them to weeds and grasses, and then leave.
As adult salamanders, they move back and forth from water to land, and can live another three to five years.
As efts and salamanders, they have a toxin in their skin that make them taste bad, which makes it possible for them to live with the fish without being eaten. There’s high mortality in eggs, but once they hit eft stage, they can live 10 years or more.
Where I live, getting hit by cars seems to be a big problem for them. And getting dried out by the sun if they came out in a drizzle and stayed too long.
Amphibians have thin, porous skin that they use as part of their breathing system. This makes them especially susceptible to environmental toxins. And amphibians worldwide are threatened, with an estimated one in three species at risk of extinction. The assumed culprits are loss of habitat and pollution.
Many frogs and salamanders are quite beautiful, and some species are threatened because too many are taken out of their natural habitat to be sold of pets. The tropics have the widest diversity of amphibian species, and that’s where the biggest danger of extinction is.
In New York state, the tiger salamander and the northern cricket frog are endangered, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. We’re lucky that the wood frogs, bullfrogs and our red efts are still thriving.
We can help them continue to thrive by keeping water and wetlands clean. Endangered Species International suggests we can help save amphibians by working to reduce or eliminate pesticides and environmental estrogens, which are common in plastics.
And we can do that by being more careful of what we eat, what we use as packaging and how we dispose of our waste.
It’s not easy to always be aware of how our lives impact the lives of other creatures around us. But the amphibians live here too.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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