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Anna B. Comstock

The Newt, Eft, or Salamander

Teacher's Story

dropcap image FTER a rain in spring or summer, we see these little orange-red creatures sprawling along roads or woodland paths, and since they are rarely seen except after rain, the wise people of old, declared they rained down, which was an easy way for explaining their presence. But the newts do not rain down, they rain up instead, since if they have journeys to make they must needs go forth when the ground is wet, otherwise they would dry up and die. Thus, the newts make a practice of never going out except when it rains. A closer view of the eft shows plenty of peculiarities in its appearance to interest us. Its colors are decidedly gay, the body color being orange, ornamented with vermilion dots along each side of the back, each red dot margined with tiny black specks; but the eft is careless about these decorations and may have more spots on one side than on the other. Besides these vermilion dots, it is also adorned with black specks here and there, and especially along its sides looks as if it had been peppered. The newt's greatest beauty lies in its eyes; these are black, with elongated pupils, almost parallel with the length of the head, and bordered above and below with bands of golden, shining iris which give the eyes a fascinating brilliancy. The nostrils are mere pinholes in the end of the snout.

The legs and feet look queerly inadequate for such a long body, since they are short and far apart. There are four toes on the front feet and five on the hind feet, the latter being decidedly pudgy. The legs are thinner where they join the body and wider toward the feet. The eft can move very rapidly with its scant equipment of legs. It has a misleading way of remaining motionless for a long time and then darting forward like a flash, its long body falling into graceful curves as it moves. But it can go very slowly when exploring; it then places its little hands cautiously and lifts its head as high as its short arms will allow, in order to take observations. Although it can see quite well, yet on an unusual surface, like glass, it seems to feel the way by touching its lower lip to the surface as if to test it. The tail is flattened at the sides and is used to twine around objects in time of need; and I am sure it is also used to push the eft while crawling, for it curves this way and that vigorously, as the feet progress, and obviously pushes against the ground. Then, too, the tail is an aid when, by some chance, the eft is turned over on its back, for with its help, it can right itself speedily. The eft's method of walking is interesting; it moves forward one front foot and then the hind foot on the other side; after a stop for rest, it begins just where it left off when it again starts on. Its beautiful eyes seem to serve the newt well indeed, for I find that, when it sees my face approaching the moss jar, it climbs promptly over to the other side. There are no eyelids for the golden eyes, but the eft can pull them back into its head and close the slit after them, thus making them very safe.

The eft with whose acquaintance I was most favored, was not yet mature and was afraid of earthworms; but he was very fond of plant-lice and it was fun to see the little creature stalking them. A big rose plant-louse would be squirming with satisfaction as it sucked the juice of the leaf, when the eft would catch sight of it and become greatly excited, evidently holding his breath since the pulsating throat would become rigid. There was a particularly alert attitude of the whole front part of the body and especially of the eyes and the head; then the neck would stretch out long and thin, the orange snout approach stealthily within half an inch of the smug aphid, and then there was a flash as of lightning, something too swift to see coming out of the eft's mouth and swooping up the unsuspecting louse. Then there would be a gulp or two and all would be over. If the aphid happened to be a big one, the eft made visible effort to swallow it. Sometimes his eftship would become greatly excited when he first saw the plant-louse, and he would sneeze and snort in a very comical way, like a dog, when eager for game.


Red-spotted newt stalking plant-lice.

The following is the history of this species as summarized from Mrs. S. H. Gage's charming "Story of Little Red Spot." The egg was laid in some fresh water pond or the still borders of some stream where there is a growth of water weed. The egg, which is about the size of a small pea, is fastened to a water plant. It is covered with a tough but translucent envelope, and has at the center a little yellowish globule. In a little less than a month the eft hatches, but it looks very different from the form with which we are most familiar. It has gray stripes upon its sides and three tiny bunches of red gills on each side, just back of its broad head. The tail is long and very thin, surrounded by a fin; it is an expert swimmer and breathes water as does a fish. After a time, it becomes greenish above and buff below, and by the middle of August it develops legs and has changed its form so that it is able to live upon land; it no longer has gills or fin; soon the coat changes to the bright orange hue which makes the little creature so conspicuous.

The newt usually keeps hidden among moss, or under leaves, or in decaying wood, or other damp and shady places; but after a rain, when the whole world is damp, it feels confidence enough to go out in the open, and hunt for food. For two and a half years it lives upon land and then returns to the water. When this impulse comes upon it, it may be far from any stream; but it seems to know instinctively where to go. Soon after it enters the water, it is again transformed in color, becoming olive-green above and buff below, although it still retains the red spots along the back, as mementos of its land life; and it also retains its pepper-like dots. Its tail develops a fin which extends along its back and is somewhat ruffled. In some mysterious way it develops the power to again breathe the air which is mixed with water.

The male has the hind legs very large and flat; the female is lighter in color and has more delicate and smaller legs. It is here in the water that the efts find their mates and finish careers which must have surely been hazardous. During its long and varied life, the eft often sheds its skin like the snake; it has a strange habit of swallowing its cast-off coat.


Early stage of vermilion-spotted newt.
Eggs of newt attached to water plant.

Drawn by Anna Stryke.


The Newt, Eft, or "Salamander"

Leading thought—The newts change their form three times to fit different modes of life. They are born in the water and at first have fins and gills like fishes. They then live on land, and have lungs for breathing air and lose their fins; later they go back to the water and again develop the power of breathing the oxygen contained in water, and also a fin.

Method—The little, orange eft or red-spotted salamander may be kept in an aquarium which has in it an object, as a stone or a clump of moss which projects above the water. For food it should be given small earthworms or leaves covered with plant lice. In this way it may be studied at leisure.


1. Look at the eft closely. Is it all the same color? How many spots upon its back and what colors are they? Are there the same number of spots on both sides? Are there any spots or dots besides these larger ones? How does the eft resemble a toad?

2. Is the head the widest part of the body? Describe the eyes, the shape and color of the pupil and of the iris. How does the eft wink? Do you think it can see well?

3. Can you see the nostrils? How does the throat move and why?

4. Are both pairs of legs the same size? How many toes on the front feet? How many toes on the hind feet? Does the eft toe-in with its front feet like a toad?

5. Does it move more than one foot at a time when walking? Does it use the feet on the same side in two consecutive steps? After putting forward the right front foot what foot follows next? Can it move backward?

6. Is the tail as long as the head and body together? Is the tail round or flat at the sides? How is it used to help the eft when traveling? Does the tail drag or is it lifted, or does it push by squirming?

7. How does the eft act when startled? Does it examine its surroundings? Do you think it can see and is afraid of you?

8. Why do we find these creatures only during wet weather? Why do people think they rain down?

9. What does the eft eat? How does it catch its prey? Does it shed its skin? How many kinds of efts have you seen?

10. From what kind of egg does the eft hatch? When is this egg laid? How does it look? On what is it fastened?

11. How many times during its life does the orange eft change color? What part of its life is spent upon land? What changes take place in its form when it leaves the water for life upon land, and what changes take place in its structure when it returns to the water?