We found this beauty in Shakerag Hollow today during our stream surveys: a red eft, the terrestrial form of a salamander that has no fewer than four life stages. The eggs (stage 1) hatch in lakes, then the larva (stage 2) fattens up in the lake before metamorphosing into an eft (stage 3) that leaves the water and wanders on land for several years before returning to a lake and transforming into an adult red-spotted newt (stage 4).
The eft stage is very unusual; no other salamanders in our region have such a stage. The advantages are clear: the eft can feed on the forest’s abundant small invertebrates and grow to adult size without having to compete with any adults. This is a common strategy among other animals, especially insects whose young specialize on different food sources than the parents (butterflies and caterpillars; maggots and flies; lake-dwelling larvae and flying dragonflies). But why should only the newt adopt such a strategy among salamanders? No-one knows, but I suspect that part of the reason lies in the species’ powerful defensive chemicals. All red-spotted newt life stages have neurotoxins in their skin and are therefore well protected from predators. It was therefore presumably not that hard for evolution to draw the eft out of water onto land. Indeed, unlike all other local salamanders, efts wander the woods in broad daylight. They are seemingly the most fearless of all the woodland creatures, with the possible exception of hornets and yellowjackets. Like these wasps, efts advertise their noxiousness with dramatic colors. This one was about only two or three inches long, but was sighted from several meters away.
“Eft” is from the Old English for “newt” or “small lizard.”