Wild Neighbors: Is the Newt Mute?

By Joe Eaton
Thursday February 25, 2010 - 09:18:00 AM

Have I really been doing this for seven years? That’s a lot of columns; I’m not even going to try to calculate how many. It’s been a good gig. I’ve been able to write about everything from California grizzly bears to beaver mites and microblind harvestmen, which are tiny arthropods that hide under rocks, and the proprietors have never complained about the subject matter being too obscure. (I later learned there was a local musical duo called Microblind Harvestman—thanks for the CD, Hal; interesting stuff.) They’ve tolerated a couple of crusades and left the copy pretty much alone. 

Over the years, people have said encouraging things about the columns. I’ve learned that I have online readers as far away as Massachusetts. Locally, there was a gratifying response when I asked for personal anecdotes about Berkeley’s dwindling flock of mitred parakeets. My thanks to all of you. 

And here we are at the end of the Daily Planet’s print run. Whatever happens in the electronic afterlife, I’m losing at least part of the audience at this point. So this is kind of a valedictory column.  

I was thinking I should go out with a bird. A lot of readers, I suspect, think of this as the Bird Column, as they think of Ron’s as the Tree Column. Birds are conspicuous and engaging creatures, and people have thrown me questions about them that turned into columns. How has Berkeley’s bird life changed over the years? What’s happening with the crows, or the Cooper’s hawks? Birds are also well documented—much more so than microblind harvestmen—and there’s a wealth of research to draw on. 

I was, in fact, considering about basing a column on some material in the latest newsletter from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which contained some shocking news about western bluebirds, based on field studies at UC’s Hastings Reserve in Carmel Valley. There are aspects of bluebird behavior that would embarrass John Edwards. 

But then I got one of those column-generating questions, from a friend who divides his time between Berkeley and the Sierra foothills. He had been hearing an odd call at his place in the mountains, suspected that it was an amphibian but had ruled out tree frogs and toads. He wanted to know if it could possibly be a newt. 

Not likely, was my first reaction. Newts are salamanders, and I had always considered salamanders to be as silent as turtles. (I’ve heard giant tortoises—not sure whether they were of the Galapagos or Aldabra variety—groan while mating.) I did recall that arboreal salamanders will squeak when you pick them up, but had assumed that to be an exception. 

In fact, Robert Stebbins and Nathan Cohen mention several cases of salamander vocalization in their Natural History of Amphibians. 

Giant salamanders bark or make rattling noises; ensatinas hiss; red-spotted newts make a “tic-tic-tic” sound. And California newts were described as making “faint, brief sounds” not otherwise described. 

So I tracked down the article Stebbins and Cohen cited, by James R. Davis and Bayard H. Brattstrom in the December 1975 issue of the journal Herpetologica. I couldn’t have gotten far with these columns without access to the stacks of UC’s Bioscience and Natural Resources Library. (Thanks, while I’m at it, to the lady who presides over the photocopy room.) 

Davis and Brattstrom described how they set up an aquarium for California newts collected in Orange County, monitored their interactions, and recorded their sounds. They identified three kinds of vocalizations, characterized as clicks, squeaks, and whistles. 

Their newts clicked when “placed in an unfamiliar location or when confronted by another newt.” The clicks seemed at first to accompany exploratory behavior. Eventually individual newts would claim particular rocks in the tank as their territory and click while defending them against interlopers: “A typical defense sequence would be: intruder tries to climb on a rock occupied by another newt; the resident rises high on its legs, displays the brightly colored throat and chest by raising its head upwards and backward, wags its tail, and clicks; intruder either retreats or presents a similar display with clicks for a short time and then retreats.” 

Squeaks were heard only when either Davis or Brattstrom picked up a newt. As for the whistle, a very faint sound (inaudible more than a meter away), it was “produced only when newts were touched in the middle of the back by other newts or by the experimenter…In one instance, after an interruption during amplexus [amphibian sex], a breeding male became disoriented and moved over the back of another newt. The latter elicited a whistle and the breeding male moved away.” It sounds like the whistle might be translated as “Hey! Get off me!” 

That’s the story, then. You’ll never hear a deafening chorus of newts, but they do have things to say to each other. If curious, you might visit the Japanese pond at the UC Botanical Garden and listen closely for clicks and whistles.