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Choosing a Pacific Newt

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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The three species of Pacific or Western newts are all members of the genus Taricha, and all are from California and Oregon. They average about 7 to 9 inches in length, have yellow to orange to tomato-red undersides and brown to olive dorsal surfaces. Until recently one member, the California newt (Taricha torosa) was a staple in the pet trade, but it has become increasingly rare. Its decline is thought to be linked to habitat fragmentation and development of their home range.

The California newt has been replaced in the pet market by the rough-skinned newt, Taricha granulosa. The rough-skinned newt is found along the coast from northern California to Alaska. The third species, the red-bellied newt, Taricha rivularis, ranges along a segment of the coast in northern California.

The Pacific newts have two interesting characteristics in common. When threatened, they extend their legs and strongly arch their back, neck and tail to reveal the brightly colored belly. This is called the "unken" position (German for "boat") and the same "startle" technique is practiced by frogs and other salamanders that have bright undersides. To back up this threat display, the Pacific newts have skin secretions that are toxic or distasteful to predators.

If well-fed and maintained in a clean tank at cool temperatures, your newt will live 10 to 20 years in captivity.

Behavior

Newts are gentle and inoffensive creatures. Handle them as little as possible, though. When you must lift them to clean their cage, make the contact period brief.

Pacific newts are solitary and reclusive newts (but they will live nicely together in captivity). Juvenile red-bellied newts, once they metamorphose from the larval stage, spend the greater part of their first 5 years underground. The rough-skinned newts are largely aquatic, although they may come onto land in search of food. The California newt stays underground in rodent burrows or under moist forest litter during dry weather, emerging during the breeding/rainy season in search of the perfect mate – a California newt of the opposite sex. Red-bellied newts emerge from their burrows to return to the stream where they were hatched for breeding.

Appearance

Pacific newts are somewhat bulky looking newts, medium to large (7 to 9 inches) in size. Unlike other salamanders, they do not have distinct side groves.

  • California newt. Depending on where it was found, this newt may be brown above to a light yellow to an orange shade below while others are a reddish brown above and a deep orange below.

  • Red-bellied newt. This lizard is dark brown above with a tomato-red belly and large dark eyes.

  • Rough-skinned newt. When in terrestrial or adult form, this newt has a distinctly rougher skin, light brown to very dark brown above, and a yellow to orange belly. Hatchlings and young adult rough-skinned newts have tiny black dots scattered over the body.

    Housing

    Newts don't take much in the way of housing. You can keep one or two in a 20-gallon tank, providing you have substrate (dampened sphagnum moss, potting soil, or non-aromatic mulch) deep enough for burrowing. Add a water container large enough for them to immerse their body and move around a little. Newts don't sun, so ambient lighting will be sufficient. Provide a flat rock to use as a base for feeding so the newts will know where to look for food. Put in a few pieces of bark or cork bark for hiding areas. You can even add a few plants, if you want the tank to look attractive. Just nestle the plants, still in their pots, into the substrate.

    Feeding

    Pacific newts eat insects and will also gobble down earthworms, crickets, sowbugs, trevo worms, waxworms, snails, some slugs, nontoxic spiders and other invertebrates. Feed a mid-sized Pacific newt (one about 4 to 5 inches long, including the tail) one or two earthworms at a time, two or three times a week. If you feed them in the early evening, you may have a better feeding response than earlier in the day. You can either place the food on a flat rock and hope your newts will find it, or you can locate the newts in their lairs and drop the earthworm/cricket directly in front of each animal.

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