Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Eye of Newt and Red Spots, Too!

There's something magical about the red spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens. Stare for a while at those hypnotic red dots, boldly outlined in black, and your mind may begin to wander...

Macbeth's three pals, the witchy gals, conjured forth spirits with a "hell-broth" which included "eye of newt" and "toe of frog" among its many mysteries. There is some dispute as to whether the incantation from Act IV, Scene 1 of the Bard's classic ghost story referred to the eye of an actual newt, or perhaps referred to some potent herb instead. Some sources suggest that the sorcerers' "eye of newt" was actually mustard seed, referencing the relatively small eyes of the newt.

In either case, the figurative or literal Old World newt called upon by Shakespeare's trio of hags would have been a close cousin to our red-spotted newt, one of only a handful of North American species of Family Salamandridae. While the adult is completely aquatic, the immature salamander may spend up to 3 years in a terrestrial phase known as a red eft. It is this land-loving form we encountered over the weekend.

Innocuous as it may appear, the red eft is a voracious predator, reputedly capable of consuming thousands of springtails and mites in a single sitting, as it sidles among the decaying leaves on the forest floor. This individual had ventured forth from the forest edge with Saturday night's rains, and meandered across a silty-bottomed gully on its way to a neighboring shady grove.

It cast a long shadow as it ambled along in the setting sun, apparently unconcerned for its safety in spite of the temporary lack of cover. Its bright reddish-orange coloration shouts a warning to potential predators, "Danger! Stop! Do NOT eat!" And, in fact, the adult red-spotted newt and the immature eft both produce toxins which are harmful to most predators.

If you'd like to see one of these handsome creatures firsthand, the watchful wanderer might cross paths with a red eft throughout the year and all across the state if conditions are right. We've met them on rocky ledges in the mountains, and crossing rural highways in the Sandhills after both spring and fall rains.
As for the would-be wiccan looking to finish off a cauldron of brew, we'd suggest you try your local garden center, where you can pick up an entire packet of "newt eyes" (mustard seeds) for a mere $1.79.

From Macbeth
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

A dark Cave. In the middle, a Caldron boiling. Thunder.

 "...Fillet of a fenny snake,
    In the caldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
    Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
    Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble..."


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