What’s your favorite animal? Seems like an innocent question. It binds me in knots faster than a trip to the dentist office. Favorite? You could add 100 qualifiers to that question and I’d give you 100 different answers, each with equal reverence and fondness. What was my favorite bird that visited my feeder during college? What’s my favorite animal in the category of extreme cuteness?
Let’s pretend that today’s question is specific: What’s my favorite animal to find on the trail? It’s the terrestrial non-reproductive sub-adult phase of a red-spotted newt. An eft. One of the things that make a newt a newt, rather than just a salamander (a newt is a kind of salamander) is the presence of this sub-adult life stage.
So, if you’re a red spotted newt, you start life as an egg in a pond. After you hatch, you’re a larva, a tadpole-like newt with gills. You swim in the pond. But then instead of developing straight into an adult, like other salamanders, you turn into an eft. Shall we say a teenager? You turn into a bright orange little critter that walks around the forest floor and hunts for insects. Eat bugs. Eat more bugs. Try not to be stepped on or eaten by a bird or an opossum or something. Do this for a few years. Don’t worry; you’re given some protection by your bright orange color spotted with little brighter orange spots ringed with black. It warns predators that you have poison in your skin. (Nothing that would bother us humans, unless maybe you decided to lick one – don’t do that!). You are a terrestrial (live on land rather than in the water), non-reproductive (you’re not ready to lay eggs or find a female to lay your eggs) sub-adult (teenager?). When you’ve grown big enough and eaten enough insects – you’ll return to the pond as a greenish colored adult for the rest of your life. You get to keep your spots.
Now you know what an eft is. So, why is it my favorite animal to find on the trail? There are a bunch of tangible reasons. They are a great brilliant orange color. They have sharply angled elbows and knees, which gives them an animated and adorable appearance. I am fond of amphibians, so finding one is always a joy.
But the things that really make them my favorite are more emotional. For one, finding them is rare enough to be special but not so rare as to be unrealistic. It’s not much use having something you never find be your favorite. Also, I know it goes back to the first efts I found. I grew up attending sleep-away camp in the rolling hills of Portage County. It was some of the best times of my life. I have a deep and passionate connection with being in the moist forests discovering the world around me and more about myself with every precious day. The landscape of where I went to camp is that which I yearn for more than any other. As a naturalist today, I chase those moments, trying to offer connections between park visitors and the land under their feet like the ones that made me who I am. It was here that I first discovered efts. After a warm summer rain on leaf and moss covered forest floors, we would spot the tiny orange creatures doing just what we were doing but on a micro-scale. So, the real reason that they are my favorite thing to find is because with each one I find I am transported to where I was so strongly connected with the natural world. Every time I look down at the moist and moss covered forest floor and spot an eft, I’m right there again.
(photo by Jamie Zammikiel)
What’s your favorite creature to find on the trail? Take a little time and think about your connections to it. Maybe you need to hit the trail a little more in search of it. It’s okay to say you haven’t found it yet. It’s out there. Keep looking!