Eastern Red-Spotted Newts’ Spring Frolic in the PA Woods
When Page and I hike in to Bruce Lake in the Delaware State Forest we are welcomed by a host of salamanders, Eastern red-spotted newts, to be precise. They swish their frilly tails and dart over and under rocks and leaves in the sunny shallows of the lake edge. The trees that ring the shore are mostly still bare, with some clusters of hemlock and pine. Opposite us, the western end of the glacial lake thickens into still-brown reeds. One raft filled with a fishing family floats along under the brilliant blue sky, and other than that it is only us. Where we sit the underbrush shields the cove at our backs, and at our feet curves a few feet of pebbly shore. I lie across a flat sunny rock in order to get my face close to the surface. The clarity of the water sharpens the lines of the underwater world where gray, purple, quartz-white, rust-red, and slate-blue pebbles line the bottom and large rocks formed shelfs or roofs for the newts. At first they all disappear under rocks or under the skim of oak leaves and tree flowers and twigs. We wait. Eventually, one emerges to blow a single bubble at the surface like a kiss before changing direction rapidly in what looked like a swimmer’s turn, and then they all return, one at a time.
The tails of the newts are more flat than round, with tissue-y edges on the top and bottom. The tail-swishes are of endless variety. A couple examples: slow undulation, where the salamander is suspended just below the surface, barely moving limbs and toes, as the tail’s curves seamlessly and perfectly reverse themselves. Display mode: big, slow swishes with the tail doubling back on itself in deep folds like ribbon candy, and maybe candy is what the males are hoping they look like.
A greener salamander nips another’s tail and it zips away. There is a large, darker-colored one with a more ragged tail curled up at the bottom, head under a twig and tucked into its side, wagging the tip of its tail like a dog. For a while they are all just floating, moving only as the water moves. We float too. I am sunning like a turtle on a rock and the only sounds, besides some faint highway sound from 84, are little birds rustling in the underbrush. Then, the action begins. The salamanders wrestle, two of them, while the others still float. The large salamander has come up from the bottom and is holding the green’s head with its hind legs. When green breaks free it looks like it is trying to nibble on the other one, and then its head gets grabbed again. They thrash around with big tail motion in the underwater. We can’t tell if they are fighting or mating. Later I read that the males lure other salamanders- largely female but some males too- with pheromones they release from under their tails. Then they grab them with their hind legs and while they have the other salamander in a headlock, they curl back and rub their faces together, a kind of salamander make-out session. Following this they disengage. The male drops a sperm packet into the water and the female may pick it up, or she may pick up one of the others, because the other males in the vicinity throw theirs in too in the hope that she will pick one of theirs up by mistake. Once she picks it up she will fertilize a few eggs, deposit them and leave.
The salamanders in front of us have all gone back into lazy floating mode. It is mesmerizing to watch, inches from the upper surface of salamander-land, as they play and laze. In the open water with the sun on them they shine, as long as my finger, with spindly forearms and hind legs and delicate toes like pointed stars, and their stomachs bulge slightly: amphibian pot-bellies. They are green and dark green and saturated and mottled, with dark speckles that stand out especially on their tails. As I am peering in at one underneath a twig I am arrested by a sudden brilliance. The four tiny red dots along its side have caught the sun and are bearing their fierce redness at me, minuscule but striking. The spots have the precision of a laser and the coloring of fire-glow, and I suddenly see, in those red dots, another friend: the red eft.
I have sometimes crossed paths with the red eft, a magical forest denizen. The red eft is pretty common in the woods here, though I myself have not seen any on this trip. Their whole body is bright orangey-red and they motor through the vast forest terrain with tenacity. They are a glistening streak of color in an otherwise muted forest palette of rock, bark, moss and lichen, a tiny and perfect brush-stroke. Normally the eft stage lasts one to two years, and in that time, the eft seeks a new home before maturing and settling on one breeding ground. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the efts are the newt teenagers- the juveniles- but it does astound me that if it so desires, the Eastern newt has the capability to skip this stage of metamorphosis entirely and go straight to a drab-toned adulthood, keeping only a remnant of red youth.
I have always been magnetically attracted to these creatures that are able to sense the earth’s magnetic field and use it for navigation. They are like little compasses, and while they have several means of receptivity, one possible means includes a bio-accumulated presence of magnetite in their body. Scientists have tried to almost alchemically prove this through a salamander-reduction process and have been unable to offer a final proof either for or against the presence of ferromagnetic material. All they can say is that it seems likely, which seems like a poor profit to place against such research, no gold produced. It seems like it would be in keeping with their attributes, since they are overall such sensitive indicators of environment.
And speaking of a sensitive awareness of environment, towards the end I drop my phone in the lake. What do they think of that? Is it a Gods Must Be Crazy moment? Except, a coke bottle is probably more useful than a dead cell phone. Humanity has de-evolved. It is definitely a my-spouse-will-not-be-happy-with-me moment, although now weeks have passed, and guess what, spouse, who is just hearing about this for the first time: the phone still works! I didn’t even lose the salamander videos. Love you, baby. I am thrilled to the core of my being to have hung out with the salamanders, no less than when I was seven or nine and finding them in my backyard, before they disappeared. I haven’t seen one now in thirty years. Salamander as a symbolic messenger “beckons us to call upon our deepest internal resources to produce the development we require” and is a message that “there is never loss, and to seek out renewal whenever possible.” So, come on, humanity, myself included. That’s a hopeful message, in keeping their more obvious traits; playful, nimble, light-of-touch. They can point the way, with their little magnetic bodies, and we should pay attention.