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What’s the California newt’s lifespan?

by on March 13, 2013

California newt. Creative commons photo by KQED/Quest
California newt. Creative commons photo by KQED/Quest

Elizabeth O’Shea wrote to us in wondering about the California newt’s lifespan. It’s one of several salamanders we talked about in Land of the Salamander, our January 2013 cover story by David Rains Wallace.

I thought of this question myself on a hike on March 2, 2013, at the King-Swett Ranches, owned by the Solano Land Trust. Some rather uninviting stagnant pools amid large grassland areas turned out to be full of what looked very much like California newts. I was surprised because I usually associate newts with more permanent water bodies, while transient pools in grasslands seem more likely breeding pools for western toads, which rush through larval development and then retreat to uplands and underground burrows when the land dries out for the summer. (David Rains Wallace wrote about that for us way back in his 2003 feature A Leap of Faith.)

Poking around online, I found a site on genomics and aging with a page on newts. Apparently, a California newt in captivity can live almost 22 years!

I asked David Rains Wallace about this, and he said: “I’ve never seen any record or estimate of California newt longevity in the wild– or any other newt (or salamander) species, although the 20 year in captivity span seems general among both New and Old World newt species.  Presumably Taricha would have a longevity boost in the wild by being inedible. Asian giant salamanders can live over 50 years in captivity.”

Wow, 50 years! (By the way, you can see those amazing giant salamanders over at the California Academy of Sciences’s Water Planet gallery.)

The story is surely much different in the wild. As a rule, a small critter like a newt would likely be food for lots of predators, but newts are incredibly toxic. Ukiah-based author Kate Marianchild told us about a finding that a single specimen of the closely related rough-skinned newt packed enough neurotoxin to kill 2000 people. Wow! But some garter snakes have developed resistance to the toxin and often hunt and eat newts. So predation from them, at least, will reduce average lifespan.

Another big factor is, well, us. Park managers at Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley Hills famously close South Park Drive during newt mating season in winter to avoid carnage on the roads when the small amphibians make their way down to Wildcat Creek to breed. So in places where newts must cross human development to get to breeding areas, lifespan is likely shorter. That’s the kind of thing that makes habitat fragmentation such a problem.

What Bay Area nature question has been itching you? Ask the Naturalist! We post bimonthly. More Ask the Naturalist questions can be found here.

Dan Rademacher is the editorial director at Bay Nature.  

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Ayesha Ercelawn on June 8th, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Hi there! Just saw a ton at the UC Botanical Gardens pond (June). So I am wondering why are they still there – breeding season must be long over, I assume. They seemed adult sized. Are they 1st year juveniles? If so, when do they finally leave the pond? Thanks.
Did get to watch one catch a damselfly and gulp it down with great facial contortions in the process!

Dan Rademacher on June 9th, 2013 at 5:18 pm

I just sent off that question to salamander expert David Wake of UC Berkeley, with whom I’ve been corresponding for another story. We’ll see what he says. But California Herps makes it sound like the young don’t fully mature and leave the water until late summer or fall: “The larval stage lasts several months. The average larval period at one location in the Bay Area was observed to be from March to October. Larvae transform and begin to live on land at the end of the summer or in early fall.” But I’m not sure if that means those newts would still have gills since it says they “transform” at the end of summer. I assume the ones you saw looked the same as adult newts.

Dan Rademacher on June 10th, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Here’s the word from David Wake: “As far as newts in the Bot Garden, I was there a week ago and saw a handful of newts. Not unusual for a few to hang around in a place like that. There are newt larvae there now and some are getting pretty large but none are more than about a quarter the size of adults.”

Mary Belle Hutchison on June 15th, 2013 at 7:03 am

Just checked your website to see what the lifespan was because one of the two newts I bought my son in 1988 just died. The other is still living. I thought that I had read somewhere that they could live to be 60 and was feeling bad to have lost “Isaac” (Newton) so “young”. If they usually only live to 20, then I guess 25 isn’t so bad. Poor “Wayne” is alone now though.

Brooke on September 28th, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Hi there! I just came across this site and wanted to share that I’ve had a California Newt for approximately 28 years!! He is a great pet.
Thanks for letting me share on your site.

Ingrid on October 25th, 2013 at 6:55 am

My California Newt was purchased in 1991, and 22 years later he’s still eating and basking on his little bridge. I don’t think that newts feel loneliness. Mine takes hours just to realize that I put food in his tank.

Harriet on December 1st, 2013 at 7:48 am

Frick (aka: Bud) is 26 years old. Rescued, with another California Newt, Frack (aka: Weiser) who lived 16 years, from a college student, 24 years ago. Even though the two newts used to hug each other, Frick is doing well being alone. Glad to hear that others are enjoying the longevity of their newts.

Lorin on January 6th, 2018 at 9:18 pm

My friend bought a California newt just over 34 years ago and it’s still alive and well. Amazing little creature!

Doug on May 20th, 2018 at 8:37 pm

I bought my Californian newt when I was 30, . I celebrated my 60th in February. I never thought about my newt Greg Schultz longevity until then. 30 years more or less! Eats 4 floaty sticks a day and live with a tank of snails. Actually swims over to me when I take the lid off his aquarium.

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