The Rough Skinned Newt, or in scientific parlance, Taricha Granulosa (meaning: Mummy with Bumpy Skin) is a species of salamander living in The Pacific Northwest, from the panhandle of Alaska to central California. It is a mid-sized salamander, about six inches long, with a distinctive dark upper surface and pale orange lower surface. As its name implies, it also has rough skin.

As an amphibian, the Rough Skinned Newt begins life in slow moving or still waters and then metamorphosis into an adult that lives in damp forests. The Rough Skinned Newt lives in leaf litter and lives off of a diet of small invertebrates, meaning insects and worms. It returns to water to breed once a year.

None of this is that interesting to the non-herpetologist: like most salamanders, the Rough Skinned Newt lives a slow life consuming small insects and worms, and due to the low energy needs of a cold blooded animal, it can live quietly and slowly in the leaf litter. This is true of most salamanders. What sets the Rough Skinned Newt apart is its poison.

The Rough Skinned Newt produces a poison called tetrodotoxin, the same poison found in the pufferfish. This poison works as an irreversible ion channel blocker, preventing muscle and nerve cells from firing, and causes death by paralysis. There is enough poison in a single salamander to kill "17 people". Fortunately, the poison only works upon ingestion, so curious hikers don't have to worry about accidentally dying from handling this creature. The common garter snake has developed a resistance to its poison and is its only natural predator.

Being so highly poisonous, the Rough Skinned Newt has adapted what we could anthropomorphize as a rather cavalier attitude towards life. There are dozens of species of salamander in Oregon. I haven't seen any of the others, because salamanders are naturally a shy, nocturnal variety of animal. The Rough Skinned Newt, on the other hand, can often be found by the dozens, lying on the margins of streams, sometimes having sex, and sometimes having sex in what is colloquially known as a clusterfuck. The Rough Skinned Newt's normal response to danger is to arch its head, revealing its neck. Normally, exposing the neck isn't a good survival strategy, but for the Rough Skinned Newt, it is a way to show coloration that warns of poisoning. For an animal as toxic as this, there is very little to be disturbed about. Even more than the Honey Badger, the Rough Skinned Newt just doesn't care. Its evolutionary advantage also may be putting it in a position of outcompeting other salamander species: able to move at will at day, and given full range of its habitat without worry, it quite gleefully eats the eggs of other salamanders. It could also be the case that it reacts to the disturbing of its habitat more quickly than other species, and has become more predominant since the settling of the Pacific Northwest by Europeans.

I am also personally surprised that I grew up handling these newts so much and never knew exactly what I was playing with: while I had heard that they were poisonous, I thought it was some type of mild stomach poison, not a poison strong enough to cause paralysis and death of over a dozen adults. I am glad that careless young me never put my fingers in my mouth after handling one of them.


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