What’s Newt?

June is upon us, daytime temperatures range from warm to hot, and the hydrangeas are in bloom.  Although we are still over a week away from the solstice, the longer days are making their influence felt – plants growing at an almost alarming rate, and me getting woken up by first light about 4:30 in the morning.  (Compare that to a 6:50 dawn in winter)

The weather is a bit abrupt – rain will suddenly fall in a small localised area for a few minutes and then stop with equal suddenness.

Late last month, the bureau of meteorology predicted the rainy season would start on June 6th.  A few days later we had a series of wet days and the date was brought forward.  Now we’ve passed June 6th, but didn’t have any significant rain for nearly two weeks.  Yesterday, that all changed.

I haven’t had many wild encounters lately (one morning seeing a grey heron, a kingfisher and a male pheasant being the exception, but that hardly counts without photographic evidence), so I’ll take this opportunity to introduce the newest arrivals at home.

First, let’s look at the pair of kajika frogs.

These are the survivors of three collected one afternoon as tadpoles in the Hanno River in late April.  The first one finished its metamorphosis toward the end of May, while the other still had the remnant of a tail a few days ago.

This one was still in the process of absorbing its tail when I took this photo on June 8th.

I am sure that they are kajika frogs (Buergeria buergeri), since almost no other frog spawns in upper streams – most prefer lakes, ponds or paddies.

The Japanese name kajikagaeru (河鹿蛙) – literally “river deer frog” – comes from the mating call of the males, which is said to sound much like the call of deer.  Just don’t ask me what a deer sounds like!

While males grow around 4 cm long and females up to 7 cm, mine are still very small, around 2 cm long.

The more mature one is also larger – female maybe?

As tadpoles they are omnivores, quite happy to eat algae, mosquito larvae, and will even cannibalize if food supply is short.  Tadpoles, as you may have guessed, are easy to keep.

Adult frogs, however, are a real challenge.  Suddenly, they transform into fussy carnivores which will eat only live worms, insects and spiders.  (It is possible to trick them into eating dead food, even strips of meat, by holding the food in a pair of tweezers and making movements that mimic insect flight)

It must also be remembered that they swallow food whole (frogs have no teeth – instead, they use their eyes to help push prey down their gullet), which makes the challenge of providing live food so much harder – catching something that is small enough for them to eat, like vinegar flies, is likely to incur my wife’s wrath!  I’m experimenting with tubifex worms, but ultimately I’m planning to donate the frogs to a school, where they’ll be given larger housing and a wider variety of food than I can provide.

They have beautiful eyes, don’t they?

The other arrivals – a pair of Japanese fire-bellied newts (Cynops pyrrhogaster) – were somewhat less unexpected.

You can see the reason for both the Japanese and English names on this pair.

A friend invited me to Tokyo Reptiles World, essentially a convention of exotic pet dealers.  Despite the name, there were a large number of stalls dedicated to birds of prey, mammals, spiders, insects, and more.

I was surprised by the sheer numbers of sugar gliders being traded.

I have mixed feelings about this kind of event – nominally wild animals (especially mammals) in cages bothers me, and I wonder what kind of home they will end up in.  On the other hand, conscientious owners can give these animals a high-quality life.

I took the kids too, along with the unspoken understanding that I was NOT to purchase any critters.  My friend breeds turtles, and he has no such restrictions at home.

It is hard to go to any kind of festival in Japan without encountering a variation of a goldfish scooping stall.  In this case we came across a newt scooping stall.  The rules were simple – you paid your ¥200, and could keep up to two newts.

My friend let his daughter have a go – she caught two newts – and then paid for my son to have a turn.  Now, I was sure he wouldn’t catch any.  But he caught two.  He wanted to take them home.  I said that his mother probably wouldn’t let him keep them.  (It should be noted here that I had wanted some newts for several years – the plot thickens, heh, heh, heh!)

However, when we got home, some well-timed comments from my friend and tears from my son (equally well-timed) convinced the wife to let me him keep them – even after the shock of discovering they can live for over 25 years in captivity!

Japanese fire-bellied (or fire belly) are known locally as akahara imori (赤腹井守, or less commonly赤腹蠑螈) “red belly newt” and are the most common and best-known of the newts found in Japan – so much so that they are often called Nihon imori (日本井守 or 日本蠑螈), literally “Japanese newt”.

Cute, aren’t they?  Newts need only a token amount of “land” in their cage, at least when they aren’t hibernating.

Newts, like salamanders, are tailed amphibians, but unlike salamanders they spend a large amount of their adult lives in or near water, some choosing to rarely leave it.  They like clear cool water, and breed in rivers, lakes, ponds and paddies, and were once a common site in rice growing areas.  However, chemical pollution and the digging of drains have severely damaged wild breeding populations in many localities.

Like most amphibians, females tend to grow larger than males, up to 13 cm compared to 10 cm for a male.  It is possible to sex adults by the shape of their tails, the male’s being deeper and having a sharper taper.

Newts are carnivorous, and in the wild will feed on worms, insects, small fish, tadpoles, and even frog and salamander eggs.

In captivity they are not particularly fussy, and have no problems with fish or turtle food.

Stop Press:

I was changing their water recently when I noticed a small round object attached to a piece of waterweed leaf.  A closer examination revealed several more.  I have no intention of counting my newts before they hatch, but it looks like we are going to have some more newts!

Newt eggs! This was completely unexpected – I was sure both newts were females! Here’s hoping for a good hatch rate!

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