Beware the red eft

While on one of my daily nature walks I looked down and spotted one of the true beauties of the woods, a red eft (see photo). They wander around, especially after rains and are very slow-moving and unafraid. Of course there is a reason for this- they are protected by a very potent poison, tetrodotoxin. You cannot be poisoned by handling the young newt, but if you eat it your nerve cells will have some severe problems. The bright orange/red coloration of red efts, which are juvenile stages of the red-spotted newt, clearly warns potential predators to leave them alone. As the red efts mature into adults, they become more greenish-yellow (see second photo). The adults return to the water where the gilled larvae started life and spend the rest of their lives there. This "reverse" life history (embryos, gilled larvae and adults are aquatic, but juveniles are terrestrial) is in contrast to typical amphibians, where only the embryos and larvae are aquatic. While there is much about this process that is unclear, it does seem likely that such an alternation of generations between habitats is probably a means of minimizing competition for limited food resources. One strange thing is that not all populations of newts have an eft stage, perhaps due to unsuitability of land habitats or less competition for food in the water. A similar phenomenon may cause retention of gills in some populations of tiger salamanders (leading to presence of aquatic, reproductively adult axolotls that resemble gilled larvae).

Another really interesting feature of red efts is that they are probably mimicked by other amphibians such as the red salamander (see photo). This latter creature is apparently tasty but may be protected by its resemblance to the very toxic red eft. Isn't it intriguing how the color red has come to be used as both a warning and an attractant, for example as the prime color for flowers used for nectar by hummingbirds, and as the color of ripe fruits? Remember also that the recognition of the color red requires that an animal has color vision, which many mammals do not. So the target predators for this red-hued message by the efts is likely to be birds.

Here we have another example of the complex interactions that govern the lives and appearance of critters- just amazing!

-Bill Dunson

Galax, VA & Englewood, FL

A tiny legume destroyer- the Genista moth

Another one of those things that go on in our backyards without much notice is the occasional destruction of plant leaves by small caterpillars. Sometimes we get annoyed by this and spray the plants or try to figure out what is happening. In recent walks in scrub habitat at Lemon Bay Preserve I have noticed that many of the beautiful sky blue lupines, which are not yet in bloom, are being heavily damaged by a small caterpillar (see photo attached). I was unfamiliar with this species and searched the web to find out that it is well known as a destroyer of various legumes, including lupine and members of the genus Sophora which includes necklace pod in Florida.
The rest of the story is that this caterpillar is immune to the powerful toxins found in legumes, and indeed uses these poisons to defend itself against attacks by predators. If this reminds you of some other famous cases think about monarchs and milkweeds, and zebra butterflies and passion-vines. So here is another case of a larval insect stage making itself toxic by eating a poisonous plant. Consider what this means- that the ability to tolerate the toxins must have evolved over a very long period, and then coloration advertising the toxicity (aposematic or warning coloration) developed. Then predators must recognize the significance of the warning coloration, perhaps specifically or generically. Some predators such as lynx spiders apparently can handle the toxins and eat the caterpillars (see this article). Now the adult is distinctively colored (see photo from web) but I do not know if it is protected also.

So if we needed reminding that the natural world is amazingly complex and interesting, here is another case. The deeper we look the more we see, and the more impressive the web of life becomes. So get out there and groove on nature but don't eat the caterpillars!

-Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL