Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
July 2005

Poisonous Newts Establish Beachhead on Baranof
Newts are Harmless - Just Don't Eat Them

By Andrew Miller
caption follows
The toxins in the newts’ skin makes them taste bad. But these newts are nothing to be afraid of. They don’t bite, and they’re totally harmless unless the toxin is ingested.

A science project gone awry has resulted in the introduction of a new species of amphibian to wetlands around Sitka.

Last fall, a Sitka High School student collected about 50 roughskin newts on neighboring Kuiu Island and brought them back for a school project. The small, poisonous creatures later were kept in science classroom terrariums, but many escaped when a terrarium was knocked over while being cleaned outside the school in September.

When newts were observed near the school shortly afterward, the connection was made to the terrarium accident. No further sightings were reported until this month, in marshy areas farther away from the school.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said that newts were not previously known to live on Baranof Island, although the newts are found elsewhere in Southeast.

The bogs, beaver ponds and wet areas of Southeast Alaska are home to six different species of native amphibians. There’s the western toad, and two species of frogs – the Columbia spotted frog and the wood frog. There are two kinds of salamanders – the Northwestern salamander and the long-toed salamander. And there’s the rough skin newt.

The rough skin newt is found along the Pacific Coast from Southcentral Alaska to Northern California.

Fish and Game area management biologist Phil Mooney said the newts are generally tan or dark brown with reddish orange undersides. He said the adults can grow to 8 inches long and live more than 25 years.

Mooney cautioned that the newts are poisonous and should be handled carefully.

"They're not very big, but they can be potent," he said.

Mooney said his intention is not to create an alarm, since the newts are "few and far between" and nonaggressive, but he has informed medical providers that the newts are in Sitka. He also informed media to alert parents to inform their children to wash their hands after coming in contact with the newts.

Mooney said his hope is that people don't go looking for the newts and don't disturb them if they find them accidentally.

Sara Larsen, a Fish and Game commercial fisheries permitting specialist, said the release of the newts in Sitka is a violation of agency regulations. She said the student who took the newts from Kuiu Island did not have a permit and the teacher who kept them in his classroom also did not have a permit. Larsen said the proper permit for keeping the newts prohibits their release into any environment other than that from which they came.

Roughskin newts get their name from the small bumps on their skin, which are actually clusters of glands that secrete a neurotoxin. Mooney said a pet could die from eating one of the newts, and he noted there is one documented case of a human death -- a man died after eating a newt on a bar bet.

The traditional range for the newts is from California to Southeast Alaska. A Fish and Game fact sheet states that newts have been reported as far north as Juneau but are most highly concentrated in southern Southeast on Prince of Wales, Revillagigedo and Gravina islands.
Kuiu Island, where the Sitka newts apparently originated, is just east of the southern half of Baranof Island.

Mooney said roughskin newts have been found on two small islands in Sitka Sound since the 1980s after someone apparently introduced them there.
"They've been confined there probably because they can't get through the salt water very easily," he said.

Mooney said the newts have joined the boreal toad as being the only amphibians living on Baranof Island, and he said he expects they will thrive in Sitka if humans and animals don't catch them all before they can reproduce.

"They're actually very attuned to this kind of habitat. They probably will do very good here," he said.

Original article by Andrew Miller reprinted with permission from the Sitka Sentinel


By Riley Woodford

Unlike Alaska’s salamanders, which are nocturnal, the rough skin newt is active during the day. This four-inch-long newt is unmistakable - it has a brown back and a bright orange-yellow belly. That bright orange belly is a sign to predators to keep away – much like the striking colors of poisonous tropical frogs – the bright colors are a warning that these newts are deadly poison. When a roughs skin newt is alarmed, it may display a defensive posture, raising its chin and tail, exposing the bright colored underside.

Glands in the bumpy, textured skin of the rough-skin newt secrete tetrodotoxin, one of the most potent neurotoxins ever discovered. Tetrodotoxin is found in a few other kinds of newts and animals such as pufferfish, parrotfish and some octopus. It is 10,000 times more toxic than cyanide.

The tetrodotoxin makes the newts taste bad, and if an animal doesn’t immediately spit out the newt, the toxin will quickly cause convulsions and death. But these newts are nothing to be afraid of. They don’t bite, and they’re totally harmless unless the toxin is ingested.

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