It is hard to capture in words the exact feelings I have about an amphibian.
We all have something… or maybe we had something, in the past sense.
There were certain things or people or places that captured our passions as children. It may have been a specific toy. It may have been a specific celebrity, an actor, or a band. It may have been an amusement park.
Once we grow up, we often look back with fondness at that thing. We may even have nostalgia about it.
But the magic has been lost.
We’ve become adults, and so “we’ve put childish things behind us”.
Me? Not so much.
I am still enamored with almost the same things as when I was a child.
“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” – C.S. Lewis
I was never into celebrities. I’m not a big fan of amusement parks. And while I had a few toys I was fond of, nothing captured my interest like the natural world.
Birds, trees, mammals, rocks, fish, space, coral reefs, insects, caves, reptiles, rivers, amphibians.
That was what mattered to me.
And they still get me excited.
But there are a few select animals that still get me, well, giddy, is probably the best word. I may hide the external manifestations of those emotions, but on the inside… yeah, it’s giddy.
The Red Eft?
That’s one of those animals. For sure.
I remember reading about the Eastern Newt in my copy of the Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife book given to me by my grandfather. I read through that book countless times, and I still have that book, worn as it is, sitting on my bookshelf.
But there was something about this amphibian that captured my interest. I think it was a combination of the drastic changes this animal undergoes in its life and the absolutely stunning colors it develops.
In general, newts are a type of salamander with, typically, drier and rougher skin. There are a few other ways in which newts differ from the other salamanders, but even the experts don’t have a consensus.
Specifically, the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) lives a life of three phases.
In the first phase, they hatch from an egg in the water and live similar to frog tadpoles.
In the second phase, they lose their gills, change their color, and move to the land; this is the “eft” or terrestrial stage of life, and they live similar to lizards. As an eft, they become bright, almost glowing, reddish-orange, and are one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.
The third and final phase is the adult stage where they turn an olive green and return to the water to live a fully aquatic life once more.
As a child, I wanted to find a Red Eft about as bad as a child could want anything.
I spent hours outside whenever I could. Growing up in South Florida, I was surrounded by lush vegetation and wildlife. I found animals of all types.
There were the relatively common Brown and Green Anoles (lizards), large Cane Toads, and Mockingbird chicks found in our yard.
There were the Eastern Mosquitofish, Apple Snails, and baby Muscovy Ducks found in the nearby canal.
Then there were also the less common animals.
For a short time I cared for (with significant help from my mother) a Mangrove Cuckoo with a broken wing, a baby raccoon (which may have actually been an opossum), recently hatched Alligator Snapping Turtles (they went back to the canal pretty quick), a Scarlet King Snake (their bites do not hurt), a Green Water Snake (their bites really hurt), a whole long list of other snakes, a Cuban Tree Frog (it loved to eat cockroaches), and even a Basilisk Lizard (yes… they really can run on water!).
But never did I find a Red Eft.
Fast-forward 25-30 years.
We have now lived on our farm in East Tennessee for about 18 months. We have been slowly repairing an unhealthy landscape that has been overgrazed with cattle and damaged with chemicals. We’ve been seeing a return of life in the soils and pastures. The land has started to heal.
Then a few days ago our current WWOOFer, Jacob, showed me a photo he took of an unknown gecko-type animal.
There it was!
A Red Eft!
All those exciting emotions I had when flipping over logs and wading in canals came flooding back.
I was giddy.
Unfortunately, the photo was taken hours earlier, and so the animal was already gone. But there was an Eastern Newt on my farm!
In addition to my childhood interests, this Red Eft got me excited for an entirely different reason. It means that our efforts to regenerate the ecosystem on the farm is working.
You see, amphibians are indicators for environmental health. They can be used like canaries in a coal mine. Historically, canaries were brought into coal mines because they are more susceptible to toxic gases, like methane and carbon monoxide, than humans. The canary would die before these gases rose to levels that would kill the coal miners. If the miners noticed the canary was dead, usually because they realized the bird had stopped singing, the miners then had time to get out of the mine before they were killed.
Amphibians breathe and drink through their thin skin, and they are exquisitely sensitive to environmental toxins. As canaries were used to monitor air quality, amphibians can be used to monitor environmental quality. Specifically, the quality of water that runs over and through the forests, soils, pastures, and environments where they live.
In this case, that environment is our farm.
And I now have proof, thanks to Jacob our WWOOFer, that we have newts on our farm.
But I still really… REALLY… want to find one myself!
For further reading on using amphibians as environmental indicators:
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