Posted by: atowhee | January 23, 2022


In the gravel on Bruce Road, Finely NWR, I saw this bit of amphibian turned to leather:

Earlier this month I posted a picture of a moving rough-skinned newt at Smithfield Oaks in Polk County. Though I have been hearing chiorus frogs off and on, this was my first newt of new year. The photo set off an interesting barrage of newt nerdly comments on OBOL:

There is a story, supposedly true, that sometime in the 1950’s three hunters in OR were missing for some days. They were found dead around their campfire. A coffee pot was nearby and in it was a dead rough-skinned newt. It was assumed the newt got into the pot, coffee was boiled, they drank it and died. I read about this many years ago. I have googled this and can’t find a definitive answer.    

Gerard Lillie
Portland, OR

I’ve heard this story before but unfortunately, every time I hear or read about it the details seem to be different. Sometimes it’s 3 hunters, sometimes it’s 4 trappers or some other number of campers. Sometimes the newt crawled in a coffee pot or a pot of stew accidentally and in some versions all the participants dared each other to eat the newts. And locations seem to be from various places around the state or in Washington in one version. I’ve never been able to track down anyone with firsthand knowledge or any documentation of this. I think it’s like many ghost stories – fun to tell around the campfire but no real truth to it. If anyone has real documentation about this I’d be happy to learn of it, but until then I’m leaving it in the fictional category and sticking with the single documented case I can find in the literature. 

Dan Gleason

Owner, Wild Birds Unlimited of Eugene

Ornithology Instructor, retired, University of Oregon


As l say, “urban legend”. Anyone hear the Disappearing Hitchhiker story? It was told to me as my girlfriend and l hitchhiked from Portland to Columbia South Jetty in April 1980. The raconteur’s aunt and uncle had a rider who told them that Mt St Helens was going to erupt on a specific date. Then without them having stopped, slowed , etc he was gone. Some time later l saw a book at the OSU bookstore entitled “The Vanishing Hitchhiker ” by Jan Harold Brunvand. A fairly serious book l believe, scholarly more than potboiler. 

Fortunately, this is kind of funny.

My wife and I are from industrial north eastern New Jersey.Contact with most forms of nature is not exactly rare, but certainly not of the extent and quality to be found in most of the rest of the U.S.

We first came here, briefly, in the ’80s, then more extensively in the ’90s, then, permanently, in 2002.

As we wandered around this new wonderland, encounters with nature, specifically wildlife, was far from our home state norm. We love the rain, the mountains, the coast and, of course, we encountered newts.

I’m a photographer and have been for about 35 years, so I tend to keep my subjects at a distance or at least on the other side of the hardware. My wife has no such inhibitions and had long since established an up-close relationship with frogs – altogether friendly and careful, but, really. . . close.

It would be no surprise to fairy tale readers and writers that she may even have married me after a kind of frog encounter that gives me a bit of the creeps. Enter the newt.

Newts are too cute. Possibly more cute than frogs, if that’s possible, and she first found them on a trip to the Cascades with me on a rainy, foggy, Oregon day when they were migrating up-hill in one of the smaller parks along a river. If you’ve seen this, you know they can be everywhere and wifey was delighted to find competition for frogs in her lovingcare (pretty much the same as I get).

You’re probably a little clenched-up by now, as I am in the writing. Yes, she has kissed Rough Skinned Newts. Maybe not after today’s warning.

Here’s hoping.

in Monmouth


I once watched, here on our farm, a Great Blue Heron swallow a newt over
a long period of time… took a lot of throwing its head back to get it
down. The heron finally succeeded and flew off. I have always wondered
if herons are immune or if that heron died or… could it have
neutralized the toxin before it ever got it all the way down?

Linda Fink, near Grand Ronde Agency, with a pond full of newts.

As far as I know, only two species of garter snakes are immune to the toxin. Since the rough-skinned newt is only found in the Pacific Northwest, the only resistant garter snakes are those living here as well. Elsewhere, there is no need for resistance to develop. There is some evidence that there is a cost to being resistant. It appears that resistant garter snakes crawl more slowly than non-resistant snakes of the same species putting them at a slight disadvantage of escaping predators. More study needs to be done on this, however. 

This newt is considered the most toxic vertebrates on the planet, producing more toxin than puffer fish or South American poison dart frogs (both have the same toxin). Each newt has enough toxin in its skin to kill 15-20 humans. And it’s not immune to its own poison. If the toxin is injected into a newt it will kill it. But the molecule is large and cannot be absorbed through the skin so handling a newt is not a problem. The toxin must be ingested. 

I don’t believe a heron could neutralize the toxin. The garter snakes actually don’t do anything to the chemical structure of the toxin to neutralize it either. The toxin affects nerve cells associated with the muscles. In nerve cells there is what is known as a sodium channel; a protein structure in the membrane that facilitates the passage of sodium ions into the nerve cell. This balance of sodium ions is essential for the nerve to function properly. Basically, the toxin, which is a large molecule, binds to the protein at the top of this channel in a way that blocks sodium from entering the channel and going into the cell. Think of plugging the end of a tube with a cork. The garter snakes produce a slightly different configuration of the protein forming the sodium channel. The toxin still binds to it but in a way that doesn’t block the opening of the channel and still allows sodium ions to bypass it and enter the cell as normal, effectively rendering the toxin unchanged but ineffective. A very cool evolutionary trick. 

Dan Gleason

Owner, Wild Birds Unlimited of Eugene

Ornithology Instructor, retired, University of Oregon

Very interesting on the Garter snakes. We have two species here; sometimes in similar abundance, other times favoring one or the other. The common garter snake, widespread across the country is very colorful. The other species, I forgot the name, is striped sometimes with stripes very strong other times very weak almost absent. And then there were other species in the west as well. Is it known whether all species can tolerate the toxin? Both our species are almost entirely terrestrial, but where I was growing up in California there was a very aquatic one that often caught fish.
–Robert O’Brien

Regarding garter snake resistance to tetrodontin poisoning, another
cool factoid is that snakes in areas where newts are more common
have greater resistance than snake of the same species in areas
where newts are not a primary prey.  Evolution, baby.

As to the heron, I wonder if, maybe, the critter being eaten was
a Northwestern Salamander rather than an actual Rough-skinned
Newt.  Northwestern salamanders produce a glue-like protein as a
defense.  They also produce toxins, but do not have significant amounts
of tetrodonin toxins.

Mike Patterson
Astoria, OR


A number of years ago I photographed a great egret trying to eat newts at the south end of Eckman Lake near my house.  The egret would pick up the newt and hold and maneuver it for awhile and then would drop it and shake its head vigorously appearing to try and rid its bill of scent or toxin.  It did this 4-5 times before giving up and moving away.

Roy Lowe

Waldport, OR

I remember the Crater Lake Study.  If I remember the study I eluded
to yesterday (I have the paper in a filing cabinet somewhere), garter
snakes had greater resistance to toxicity (and they emphasized that it
was resistance, not immunity) in areas where a principle prey item
was newts, than in places where they didn’t eat newts.

And the reverse was also true.  Newts had greater levels of tetrodontins
in populations where snake predation was high.  Snakes were driving newt
toxicity and newts were driving snake resistance.

So, not all newt populations are equally toxic.

The Crater Lake newt population is a very special, endemic population,
Taricha granulosa mazamae.  They have less orange on the belly.  The
dark plus orange color is warning coloration in many species of animals.
There may be a connection between loss of this coloration and reduced
toxicity.  I suspect that there ain’t much garter snake predation up
there, either.
Mike Patterson
Astoria, OR

Robert O’Brien            


Interesting about the Barred Owl.

I’m pleased to see that the lowly Rough-skinned Newt is holding its own against the mega-cute Sea Otter on OBOL.

FYI  I’m leading tours to view the newt in my back yard.  Priced reasonably.

As to the Barred Owl vs. Newt battle, it probably not a happy situation if Barred Owls are or are becoming Newt immune or Newt adverse.

Spotted Owl and Newt habitat coincide I would guess. It seems likely that Spotted Owls are Newt adverse? Would be ‘cool’ I guess if the Newt could assist the Barred Owl control measures.  Sadly, given the numbers of Barred Owls ‘taken down’ in the control measure it seems the Newts are not doing their fair share.

As to our local Barred Owl, around for a couple of years now, neither my wife nor I have heard the Steller’s Jays announcing its location in several weeks now.  A disappointment.  Now the Newts come out to breed this time of year, trundling slowly towards the nearest waterhole.  Perhaps a Newt took it down in a murder/suicide?  Bob OBrien  Carver OR

PS  Here is the final paragraph of the Barred Owl / Newt paper.

Another possibility is that western populations
of Barred Owls may be evolving some resistance
to TTX where they are exposed to Taricha prey.
Our studies show that Barred Owls do sometimes
depredate salamanders, including toxic Taricha
newts. In live-collected Barred Owls, only 1
stomach of 230 (~0.4%) contained newts, but
salamanders collectively comprised 8.3% of total
prey numbers (59 of 230 stomachs analyzed, or
25.7%), suggesting a relatively high probability of
exposure over the life of an owl. Because the
Eureka owl was found dead, and possibly
poisoned by the newt, estimating the frequency
of newt depredation is difficult. Although we
suspect that Barred Owls may be opportunistically
feeding on newts where they are less toxic, their
exposure, even to lower levels of TTX, may
subject sodium channels to natural selection for
eventual resistance.


My picture from Smithfield Oaks, Jan. 20:

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