Mt. Diablo looms above the clouds.
You know you're getting a little new-agey when you accidentally step on a cow pie during your nature walk and feel a flash of pleasure at its squishiness. This happened to me today. It's Winter in Briones Regional Park, and that means it's been raining for days. The hills, which I had gotten to know in their yellow, dried-out summer incarnation, have turned emerald green. Erin go Briones – I wouldn't be surprised if a Leprechaun tapped me on the calf.
Finally, the forecast says we just might get through a day without downpour. My butt's getting numb from sitting at my computer and I'm determined to go hiking. I've stashed a waterproof poncho in my backpack just in case the rain returns. It's in the upper fifties and the mist is everywhere. I'm walking through it, breathing it, feeling its coolness on my face. The fog-filtered hills roll out in ever paler greens until you're not sure if you're looking at a distant crest or a fully saturated cloud. Quiet reigns. The only people out today are humidity freaks, and we are a rare breed. One passes by me on his way back to the staging area. "Perfect weather for a walk", he remarks. I nod and we look at each other like a couple of fetishists acknowledging our common perversion.
As the trail starts to climb, things get a little challenging because the land is unstable.The shifting Briones landscape is defined by mud flows, sink holes, vernal pools and large cracks in the ground. Although we are in earthquake territory, these fissures are not fault lines: they are places where the water-saturated earth is starting to slip down the hill. I trudge up trenches of slick mud, doing my best to avoid puddles and nascent streams. Had I worn my sneakers instead of hiking boots, I would have a hard time staying vertical. I have my eyes locked on the ground, trying not to slip, when I notice a slimy, merlot-colored amphibian - the unimaginatively named California newt, known to scientists as Taricha Torosa.
Shitty shot off yours truly's cell phone
Beauty shot off the web
Don't let the lizard body fool you. Newts are not reptiles, but amphibians, and members of the salamander family. This particular specimen was likely out looking for love: mating season runs from December to early May. Prior to the annual booty call, the newt is technically an "eft", living on land and hiding under logs or fallen trees. When the Winter rains begin, the eft becomes nostalgic for its watery origins and heads back to the pond of its birth to make new newts. This involves an aquatic mating dance which culminates in the male mounting the female and rubbing his chin on her nose. She releases a thick mass of seven to thirty eggs, all stuck together in a hard, toxic gel which attaches to some hard surface in the pond – roots, rocks, debris – whatever sticks.
Winston, my super-sized Yorkie, appeared completely disinterested in the newt, so I figured I could safely take a picture. I fully expected the creature to skitter away once I started hovering over it with my cell phone, but it kept crawling along at the same leisurely pace, as unconcerned with me as the dog was with it. Perhaps the sluggish newt was sick or injured? Later, I learned why Taricha Torosa was so laid back, and it had nothing to do with being from California.
Glands in the skin of this species secrete a toxin hundreds of times more deadly than cyanide: tetrodotoxin. This is the very same poison found in fugu, the puffer fish that, when improperly prepared, kills between seventy and a hundred thrill-seeking Japanese gourmands each year. Tetrodotoxin works by blocking the transmission of nerve signals from the brain to the muscles - including those signals from the autonomous nervous system that remind your heart and lungs to keep going. The California newt is so lethal that it has no natural predators, at least until someone introduces it to a sushi chef.
It's not a good idea to pick up Taricha Torosa. The creatures are fragile, and although the toxin has to be ingested to be lethal, you could be exposed through a cut in your skin. Still, you really have to go out of your way to experience death by poisonous newt. But it happens. One drunken young man in Coos Bay Oregon swallowed a California newt on a dare. Despite emergency hospitalization, he died the next day of heart failure. A victim of tetrodotoxin, alcohol and a form of stupidity unique to the male of the human species. (Yes, I know women who are stupid. I know women who are drunks. But I'd be hard-pressed to find a female who would swallow a live amphibian just to prove her moxie).
So there you have it, my latest Briones adventure. I did finally have to break out the rain poncho, about 20 minutes before making it back to my car. Poor Winston got completely drenched and left perfect muddy paw prints all over the front seat. Next time, I am going to veer off the trail a little and go check out some of those ponds up close. Maybe I'll even take a real camera and see if I can get pictures of some live newt dancing.
This diagram shows limb regeneration in a newt. Not only can these amphibians grow new limbs or a tail, they can also regenerate damaged parts of the heart or liver!
Do not disturb!