Important note: if you think you, your child, or your drunken friend may have ingested a poisonous animal, stop surfing teh interweb and CALL THE POISON CONTROL CENTER (find the number at www.aapcc.org). Also please note that I am not actually a doctor.
Yes, newts (members of the family Salamandridae) are poisonous. Be aware of the difference between poisonous and venomous: if newts were venomous, they would have tiny little fangs, and tiny little dracula capes, and hunt you down during the night so they could inject their venom. Newts are not venomous. They are, however, poisonous, which means that if you eat them, bad things will happen. A newt's skin is covered in chemicals that taste nasty, make you vomit, and can possibly kill you, if you are dumb enough to eat a newt.
Newts have granular (bumpy) skin; each tiny bump is a poison gland. They also are brightly colored, though often only on the underside. All of the newts commonly kept as pets in the US are toxic, and many are beautiful, or at least cute. The Taricha newts, which are native to the West Coast of the US, are the namesake of Tarichatoxin, a deadly poison that was eventually discovered to be the same thing as tetrodotoxin, the infamous pufferfish poison. All Salamandridae so far tested have tetrodotoxin in their skin (and presumably other tissues) at some point in their lives. Larvae ("tadpoles") are not usually poisonous, for instance.
In one apocryphal story, a newt (of the Taricha genus, so probably about six inches long) crawled into a family's teakettle, unbeknownst to the family. They boiled the water (think "newt soup"), made tea, and in the morning were all found dead. Or so the story goes.
I wrote elsewhere about the toxicity of tetrodotoxin. Exact data as to toxicity is hard to pin down (see the articles at the bottom of this writeup), but a single Rough-Skinned Newt (Taricha granulosa) contains enough toxin to kill 25,000 mice. And, yes, that's more than enough to kill you, if you eat a newt.
Looking to the medical literature, we find several accounts of people who ate newts. One paper cleverly titled "Tail of Newt: an unusual ingestion" (oh, you physicians! You just crack me up!), we learn of the story of a two-year-old who did not, in fact, ingest a newt. She bit off a piece of her pet newt's tail, whereupon she began screaming and crying. Upon advice from the poison control center, she was given fluids and activated charcoal. (fluids were probably just for the heck of it; activated charcoal can absorb poisons, although since she hadn't actually swallowed anything it was probably a moot point). Child and newt both came out ok.
You're not likely to die from newt poisoning because:
- the toxin produces a nasty stinging sensation in your mouth (as experienced by the child, who screamed when she got the newt skin in her mouth), whereupon if you are not drunk and stupid, you will spit it out
- it also makes you vomit (thus removing the newt from your stomach)
Another paper tells of two separate incidents in which drunk guys swallowed newts. One man swallowed several newts on a bet, felt sick, threw up the newts, and went to the hospital where he was given fluids and charcoal, and fully recovered. Meanwhile, the other man was not so lucky (he did it on a dare, not a bet - let this be a lesson to you, if you're going to do something stupid, at least make sure to get some cash out of it). For some reason, probably related to other medical problems he had, he never vomited the newt up, and died within a day or so.
Is it safe to keep newts as pets? Yes. As long as nobody's eating anybody else, the newts' poison will not hurt you or the newts' tankmates.
In closing, I offer a personal testimonial that was emailed to me (posted with permission):
I was reading the "are newts dangerous?" section (of http://loxosceles.org/newts/) and I came across the part talking about eating newts and the reference to drunks. And it's sad to say it's true, drunk people eat newts! One night my roommate's heavily intoxicated boyfriend came into my room and ATE MY NEWT!!! About 2 minutes later, after I flipped out, he promptly started to vomit and *ugh* regurgitated my newt. Unfortunatly my newt did not survive and my roommate broke up with the
newt-eating-drunk (thank god! b/c if i ever saw that guy again, I'd probably
knock his lights out for killing my baby!).
References and further reading
Duellman, William E., and Trueb, Linda. Biology of Amphibians. 1994: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
J Nat Toxins 2001 May;10(2):79-89 Toxicity and toxin profiles of the newt, Cynops pyrrhogaster from western Japan. Tsuruda K, Arakawa O, Noguchi T. Graduate School of Marine Science and Engineering, Nagasaki University, Japan.
Toxicon 2001 Aug;39(8):1261-3 The levels of tetrodotoxin and its analogue 6-epitetrodotoxin in the red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. Yotsu-Yamashita M, Mebs D.Graduate School of Agricultural Science, Tohoku University, 1-1 Tsutsumidori-Amamiyamachi, Aoba-ku, 981-8555, Sendai, Japan.
Pediatr Emerg Care 2000 Aug;16(4):268-9 "Tail of newt": an unusual ingestion. King BR, Hamilton RJ, Kassutto Z.Department of Emergency Medicine, The University of Texas Houston Medical School, 77030, USA. email@example.com
JAMA 1982 Mar 12;247(10):1408 Toxic salamanders. Brodie ED Jr. Publication Types: Letter
JAMA 1981 Jul 17;246(3):247 A fatal poisoning from the Oregon rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa). Bradley SG, Klika LJ.