Species Spotlight: California Newts

Wildlife migration isn’t just about large mammals like mountain lions – it’s also critically important for many smaller species. One example is the California newt, a tiny amphibian that is in danger of local extinction due to roadway mortality. But a multi-agency effort is underway to save the newts, with help from a dedicated band of citizen scientists.

Meet the California Newt: No Time for Newtrality

We can’t be newtral about the newt
Very cute, not a brute
They’re in danger on this route
When along Alma Bridge Road they scoot
Then their danger is acute
If you protect them you’re astute
Please don’t give the newt the boot.
   – Anonymous Newt Fan

California newts range in color from dark brown to a translucent-looking amber on their undersides. Their skin secretes a powerful toxin to repel predators (this is why you should never touch a newt). During the summer, they live in dry upland areas such as woods and grasslands. But when the rainy season comes, the newts migrate to nearby ponds and creeks to mate and lay eggs, then head back up to the hills. Newt migration season goes from November to March, and during this time you may see newts crossing roads and trails, especially during wet weather.

Because newt biology often requires them to cross roadways in search of suitable ponds, these slow-moving creatures are extremely vulnerable to being crushed by cars. Locally, one roadkill hotspot is a 4-mile stretch of Alma Bridge Road along Lexington Reservoir in Los Gatos. Citizen scientists began documenting dead newts on this roadway in 2017, and since then have found that between 5,000-8,000 newts are killed on this stretch of road each year. A 2021 study estimated that, of the nearly 14,000 adult California newts that attempted to cross Alma Bridge Road in 2020-21, almost 40% were killed by vehicle collisions. As a result, this population of newts is at risk of being completely wiped out.

What’s Being Done About It?

A multi-agency effort led by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) and Santa Clara County is focused on solving this problem and saving the newts. One option might be to rebuild the roadway so that the surface includes a series of open grates that cars can drive over, while newts safely cross beneath. The project is at the feasibility study and preliminary design phase, and pending project approvals and funding availability, may be able to begin construction in a few years. For more information, see the Alma Bridge Road Newt Passage Project.

If you’d like to volunteer with the Newt Patrol and help document newt mortality, sign up at https://www.bioblitz.club/newts.

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