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Happy Herp: Land-and-Water Living

The eastern newt, a native of North America, makes a hardy amphibious pet.
By Petra Spiess

For herp enthusiasts, the hobby doesn’t end at reptiles. Amphibians as a class include many interesting and beautiful species that make captivating pets. Retailers who wish to branch out from just selling reptiles would do well to offer eastern newts to their customers.

Natural History

Adult eastern newts occasionally come onto land, so their habitats need to provide both aquatic and terrestrial portions, with the former being larger.
Credit: Paul Freed
The eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) has four subspecies and ranges from southeastern Canada south to Florida and west into portions of the Midwestern U.S.

It has a rather unusual life cycle typically consisting of three stages. The first stage involves transformation from egg to gilled larva, the second from gilled larva to a juvenile terrestrial form: the eft. After anywhere from two to seven years, efts return to water and transform into the mature adult stage. However, in some subspecies, many individuals skip the eft stage entirely.

In each stage, newts have different colors and morphologies. Efts’ coloring ranges from a rust or brownish-orange to a bright orangish-red with black-outlined red spots. Adults have an olive dorsal coloring and can have red spots, black-outlined red spots or black-outlined red broken stripes along the sides of their bodies, depending on the subspecies. Their bellies are yellowish in color with black spots covering them.

This species is common throughout its range, and adults live in different types of aquatic habitats, such as ponds, marshes and ditches, though they also venture onto land. Efts often inhabit moist land, such as the litter layer of forests. A species on the smaller side, the eastern newt ranges in size from 2 to 3 inches at the eft stage and 3 to 5 inches as an adult. Eastern newts have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years.

Sex can be difficult to distinguish in this newt species. Males have wider back legs than females, and during breeding season, males have nuptial pads on their back legs and toes.

The bright color of many efts advertises another characteristic of eastern newts: their poison. Eastern newts give off toxic skin secretions and are poisonous when consumed. Keepers should minimize handling, wash hands after contact and not house an eastern newt with any creature that might consider the newt a tasty snack, since it could be a fatal one.

Housing

Differences Between Eastern Newt Subspecies

  • Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens (red-spotted newt) is the biggest, brightest and most often seen eastern newt subspecies in the pet trade. It is the subspecies with the largest range. 
    .
  • Notophthalmus viridescens dorsalis (broken-striped newt) is found in the Carolinas, has spots that form a broken line, sometimes skips the eft stage and is the smallest subspecies.
    .
  • Notophthalmus viridescens piaropicola (peninsula newt) is darker than the other subspecies and completely lacks red spots. It is found in Florida.
    .
  • Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis (central newt) has fewer red spots or may lack them completely; most individuals skip the eft stage.  —PS
Although the contents of an enclosure for eastern newts vary with their life stages, 10-gallon aquariums or glass cages of similar size work well for housing both adults and efts.

Efts are primarily terrestrial but still need very high humidity, along with bowls offering shallow, clean water. Good substrates for efts include moss, bark mixes (such as cypress mulch) and coconut-fiber bedding. The substrate should be able to hold moisture, as humidity needs to be on the high end (70 to 100 percent). Efts also require a number of different hiding spots around the cage.

Eastern newts—both efts and adults—are excellent candidates for naturalistic vivaria, which can help simulate a temperate forest floor for efts and a temperate pond-edge habitat for adults. Live plants, both aquatic and terrestrial, are highly recommended for eastern-newt enclosures.

Not only do they add aesthetic value, but they also help to maintain high humidity.

These newts don’t require full-spectrum lighting, but having it benefits any plants in the setup and highlights the animals’ colors. Cage furniture that keepers might also consider adding includes stones, driftwood, cork bark and decorative hiding spots. Manufactured hiding spots made from plastics or stone materials are good choices, as they are resistant to rot in the high-humidity environment eastern newts need. Both adults and efts can live in a temperature range of 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

Efts (red-spotted newts) require habitats that have high humidity; bowls with shallow, clean water; moisture-holding substrate; and hiding spots.
Adult eastern newts are primarily water dwellers but come onto land occasionally, so enclosures for them need to provide both—although the aquatic side should be larger. The aquatic portion can vary in depth, but the newts must be able to climb up on something to the surface and to exit the water should they choose to do so. Because amphibians have permeable skin, it is of utmost importance that keepers keep the cage—especially the water—very clean, which may require the use of a filter. However, since eastern newts live primarily in still water, such as ponds, the filter shouldn’t set up a stiff current in the aquatic section.

Feeding

Adult newts eat a variety of common pet store fare, such as diced earthworms, bloodworms, brine shrimp and small commercial food pellets. Efts typically eat only live food, consuming fruitflies, pinhead crickets and very small mealworms.

Legal Issues

Because eastern newts are native to large parts of Canada and the U.S., their sale may be regulated or even prohibited, depending on local laws. The state of Indiana, for example, bans the sale of all of their native reptiles and amphibians, including the eastern newt. Retailers who want to start offering eastern newts should contact their local fish and wildlife offices or check their websites to ascertain the legality of their sale. <HOME>

Petra Spiess is a writer with a master’s in ecology. She spent several years as the owner of her own reptile breeding business. 


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