We came across not just one but three Roughskin Newts on our morning walk, a sure sign of winter’s rainy approach. Roughskin Newts are a type of salamander found in the Pacific West from the Alaskan Panhandle south to California from sea level to 2700 metres. They are fairly large reaching up to 22 centimetres in length from tip of the nose to the end of tail. Their colour ranges from dark brown to grey on top with a bright orange or yellow belly. Our Newts have bright orange bellies with a dark brownish-purple overcoat. Their brightly coloured bellies warn predators off.
They are incredibly poisonous. A single Newt’s toxic skin contains enough poison to kill 25,000 (!) mice. They are one of the most poisonous amphibians in the Pacific Northwest and many dead birds and fish have been found with Roughskin Newts in their stomachs. Interestingly Common Garter Snakes, one of the Newts main predators, are unaffected by their poison.
Newts are carnivores eating insects, slugs, worms, amphibian eggs and larvae. They can be both terrestrial as well as aquatic. When terrestrial they live under logs and leaf litter and have been known to live in other animals burrows. During breeding season they return to ponds and lakes. In the winter they become inactive and live underground or under logs where they remain moist but do not freeze.
Newts and Salamanders have the ability to regenerate lost tails and legs. Some types of salamanders have a tail more brightly coloured than the rest of their body. This tail coloration attracts predators to the tail instead of the body - if the tail is eaten, the salamander is able to survive and grow a new one.
Salamanders are legendary creatures and one of the earliest written recordings is by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) where he notes that they never come out except during heavy showers and disappear the moment the weather becomes clear.
Salamanders are also associated with fire - ancients believed that they were resistant to fire. Before central heating people used logs to heat their homes during the winter. These logs were stacked outside and salamanders hibernated in them. When the logs were brought inside and put on the fire the salamanders would wake up and run out of the log to escape being burned. This led people to believe that the fire created the Salamander.
Salamanders were used in heraldry to signify bravery and courage that the fire of affliction cannot destroy or consume.
In Victorian symbolism the salamander is a symbol of passionate love because it was believed that the salamander could survive Cupid’s fiery arrow of love. For early Christians, because of its ability to survive fire, the salamander was a symbol of spiritual integrity, faith, chastity and righteousness.
In ancient animal symbolism the salamander is said to represent Fire, while the Eagle, Air, the Lion, Earth and the Dolphin, Water.
In Alchemy the Salamander was a symbol of a stone fixed in red (sulfur). Alchemist believed that the salamander was a fire-eater, able to put out fire with its cool, moist body. In alchemical philosophy, anything that had the power to transform something into something else was of major importance.
It is said that the appearance of a Salamander heralds transformation assisted by unique and unexpected assistance. Salamander calls on us to connect to the mysteries of the Earth, to become grounded and open to transformation.