A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Sierra Newt - Taricha sierrae

(Twitty, 1942)

(= Taricha torosa sierrae)
Click on a picture for a larger view

Range in California: Orange

Red: California Newt

Dot-locality Range Map

Identifying Species of
Pacific Newts - genus Taricha

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Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt
Terrestrial phase adult, Mariposa County Terrestrial phase adult, Mariposa County
Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt
Adult male, Fresno County, found on land during the breeding season.
Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt
Adult aquatic phase female, Fresno County, found in the water during the breeding season.
Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt
Terrestrial phase adult, Tuolumne County Defensive pose, Mariposa County Terrestrial phase adult, Fresno County Adult female, terrestrial phase, Butte
County © Jackson Shedd
Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt
Adult male, aquatic phase, Butte
County © Jackson Shedd
Aquatic phase breeding adult male, Butte County Breeding adult male (on top) with breeding adult male Rough-skinned Newt (on bottom) found in the same pool of water.
Sierra Newt toes    
During the breeding season, adult males develop nuptial pads on the toes to improve their ability to hold onto females during amplexus.    
Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt eggs
Adult female underwater with several egg masses, Fresno County. Egg sacks attached to a rock in a creek, Butte County © Jackson Shedd
Sierra Newt eggs Sierra Newt eggs Sierra Newt eggs  
Eggs, Fresno County, attached to a plant stem.
Found underwater and pulled out briefly to photograph.
Newts and eggs attached to submerged branches in a creek, Fresno County.
© Steven Britton
Sierra Newt Larva Sierra Newt Larva Sierra Newt Larva Sierra Newt Larva
  Larvae underwater, Fresno County  
Sierra Newt Larva Sierra Newt Larva Sierra Newt Larva Sierra Newt Larva
  Larvae underwater, Fresno County  
Sierra Newt Larvae Sierra Newt Larva Sierra Newt Larva Sierra Newt Larvae
Larvae underwater, Fresno County Larvae in creek, Mariposa County
© William Flaxington
Sierra Newt Habitat Sierra Newt Habitat Sierra Newt Habitat Sierra Newt Habitat
Habitat, Fresno County Habitat, Butte County Habitat, Mariposa County Habitat, Mariposa County
Sierra Newt Habitat Sierra Newt Habitat Sierra Newt Habitat Sierra Newt Habitat
Breeding pool, Fresno County Breeding pool, Fresno County Breeding pool in the forest, Butte County Habitat, breeding creek, Fresno County
© Steven Britton
Sierra Newt Habitat      
Kaweah River as it enters Lake Kaweah, Tulare County.

In the Sierra Nevada, Coast Range Newts are found south of the Kaweah River, while Sierra Newts are found north of the river. However, there is some overlap between the two around the river itself.
Short Videos
Sierra Newts Sierra Newt Sierra Newt Sierra Newt
A male newt, found crossing a road in the afternoon towards a breeding pool in a creek in Fresno County, is set down at the edge of the pool. He walks in and swims away quickly. Another male approaches him, either chasing him away from his territory or checking to see if he might be a female, and after only a few minutes in the pool, the new guy climbs back out of the water. A Sierra newt crosses a road on a March afternoon in Fresno County. A female Sierra Newt clings to several recently-laid egg masses in a shallow pool in Fresno County. Sierra Newts in motion.
Sierra Newt Sierra Newt larvae Sierra Newt larva  
Male newts move around a shallow breeding pool in the Sierra Nevada foothills in early March. Tiny Sierra Newt larvae move around underwater in a small aquarium. A tiny Sierra Newt larva crawls around on the bottom of a shallow pool in a slow-moving creek.  
Adults are 2 3/4 - 3 1/2 inches long (7 - 8.9 cm) from snout to vent, and 4.9 - 7.8 inches (12.5 - 20 cm) in total length.

A stocky, medium-sized salamander with rough, grainy skin in the terrestrial phase, and no costal grooves.
Color and Pattern
Terrestrial adults are yellowish-brown to dark brown above, burnt orange, sometimes yellowish, below.
(There is less contrast between dorsal and ventral color on sides than with T. granulosa.)
The eyelids and the area below the eyes are lighter than the rest of the head.
The iris is silvery to pale yellow.
The eyes appear to extend to or beyond the outline of the head when viewed from above, (unlike T. granulosa.)
Male / Female Differences
Breeding males develop smooth skin, a flattened tail to aid with swimming, a swollen cloaca, and rough nuptial pads on the undersides of the feet to aid in holding onto females during amplexus.
Aquatic larvae are the pond type, light yellow above with two dark regular narrow bands on the back.

Comparison With Other Taricha Species
Identifying Species of Pacific Newts - Genus Taricha

Life History and Behavior

Rough-skinned when in the terrestrial phase.
Breathes through lungs.

Terrestrial and diurnal, often seen crawling over land in the daytime, becoming aquatic when breeding.
(In some permanent bodies of water, adults retain their aquatic breeding phase characteristics and live in the water year-round.)
Sometimes seen moving in large numbers to aquatic breeding sites during or after rains during breeding season.
Terrestrial newts summer in moist habitats under woody debris, or in rock crevices and animal burrows, but can sometimes be seen wandering overland in moist habitat or conditions any time of the year.
Longevity is not known, but it has been estimated that California Newts can live for more than 20 years.
Poisonous skin secretions containing tetrodotoxin repel most predators. This potent neurotoxin is widespread throughout the skin, muscles, and blood, and can cause death in many animals, including humans, if eaten in sufficient quantity. (One study estimated that 1,200 - 2,500 mice could be killed from the skin of one California Newt.) This poison can also be ingested through a mucous membrane or a cut in the skin, so care should always be taken when handling newts.
In most locations the Common Gartersnake, Thamnophis sirtalis, is has a high resistance to this poison, and is known to prey on Taricha species.

When threatened, a newt will assume a swaybacked defensive pose, closing its eyes, extending its limbs to the sides,  and holding its tail straight out. This "unken reflex" exposes its bright orange ventral surface coloring which is a warning to potential predators.

Larvae are not poisonous and are preyed on by adult newts and other predators. Chemical cues from adult newts trigger larvae to seek cover.
According to Davis and Brattstrom, California Newts produce a repertoire of sounds. (Davis, J. R. and B. H. Brattstrom. 1975. Sounds produced by the California newts, Taricha torosa. Herpetologica 31:409-412.) The sounds are very faint and difficult to hear over environmental sounds in the field. They did not determine how the newts were able to physically produce these different sounds. Breeding phase Coast Range Newts from Orange County were observed and recorded in a laboratory in a naturalistic setting where they were able to continue their typical social behaviors.

Three types of sounds were documented: clicks, squeaks, and whistles.

Clicks were the most commonly heard sounds. They were made when newts were put in an unfamiliar location, and when they were confronted by another newt. (The clicks appeared to be used to establish territories.)

Squeaks were made when a newt was picked up, and were sometimes accompanied by the newt twisting its body. The purpose of the squeak might be to startle a predator or to advertise the newt's toxicity.

The whistle was observed during breeding activity when a newt was touched in the middle of the back by a human or another newt, such as when a male newt climbed onto the back of another male newt. It was produced by males and females. The sound was not observed and could not be artificially evoked two weeks after breeding was over. This sound appears to be used in sex recognition and to establish hierarchical relationships, similar to the release call of a frog.
Diet and Feeding
Adults eat small invertebrates such as worms, snails, slugs, sowbugs, and insects. They also consume amphibian eggs and larvae, including newt larvae and newt eggs. A small nestling bird was found in the stomach of one newt.
Larvae eat small aquatic invertebrates, decomposing organic matter, and possibly other newt larvae.
When feeding on the ground, adults feed by projecting a sticky tongue to capture prey. Aquatic adults open their mouth and suck the prey in.
Reproduction is aquatic.
Adults proably reach reproductive maturity in their third year.
The breeding season lasts 6 - 12 weeks.
Typically, adults begin migrating to breeding streams in January and February.
In years with heavy precipitation, migration might occur in March and April after stream flow has subsided.
The Sierra Newt shows a strong tendency to use streams for breeding, but may use ditches and other bodies of water.
Breeding has been observed from early March through May.

Migration may take several weeks and cover large distances.
(In one study, California newts were recaptured up to nearly two miles (3,200 m) away from the breeding pond where they were originally captured and marked.) Newts have a strong homing instinct and typically return to the same breeding site each time they breed. This homing behavior has not been explained, but experiments show that it invoves a sense of their body position, but it could also involve the sense of smell or a form of celestial navigation.

Males arrive first, and stay longer than females. In the water, males transform into their aquatic phase, with smooth skin that lightens in color, swollen cloacal lips, and tails enlarged and flattened to help them swim. Females develop smoother skin, but do not undergo as much change as males.
Males patrol the edges of the breeding waters, waiting from females to enter the water. When a female enters, she may be mobbed by a number of males who struggle to hold on to her until one male grabs on and cannot be removed. After a period of amplexus, where the male clutches the female from above, the male deposits a spermatophore and the female picks it up with her cloaca.
Females lay and attach a spherical egg mass to the sides and bottoms of stones in relatively fast water. Egg masses contain from 7 - 47 eggs. It is estimated from ovarian counts of 130 - 160 that females lay from 3 - 6 masses each. Egg masses are attached just below the surface of the water. If the water rises significantly or lowers and strands the eggs, the eggs will die.

Incubation times may vary at various locations, from 14 - 52 days.
The larval stage lasts several months. The average larval period at one location in the Bay Area was observed to be from March to October. Larvae transform and begin to live on land at the end of the summer or in early fall. Larvae have been found in the spring in Southern California that were completing their metamorphosis, meaning they had hatched the previous year and had continued developing over the winter, but it appears that overwintering by larvae is uncommon. Metamorphosis may be triggered by pond drying in some waters, but other factors that influence metamorphosis have not been determined. Metamorphosis takes about 2 weeks, as the tail fin is absorbed and the gills are reduced.

Transformed juveniles leave the water with adult coloration and characteristics and with a trace of gills remaining. At this time they cannot survive if kept in the water. Juveniles leave the natal pond and travel overland where it is assumed they take refuge and do not return to the water until they breed.

Geographical Range
Endemic to California. Ranges along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from northern Shasta county south to a zone of intergradation (or hybridization) with the Coast Range Newt along the Kaweah River in Tulare County.

(Newts in the southern Sierra Nevada from the Kaweah River in Tulare County south to Mill Creek in Kern County were formerly recognized as Sierra Newts.)
Elevational Range
Found up to about 6,500 ft. (2000 m.) (Stebbins & McGinnis 2012)

Inhabits grey pine-blue oak, and ponderosa pine communities. Better adapted to and more likely to breed in faster-flowing water than T. t. torosa.

Notes on Taxonomy
Two subspecies of Taricha torosa have been traditionally recognized: T. t. sierrae, and T. t. torosa. In 2007, Shawn R. Kuchta1 showed that the two subspecies of Taricha torosa "constitute distinct evolutionary lineages and merit recognition as separate species: T. torosa (California newt) and T. sierrae (Sierra newt). " The contact zone between these two species is the southern Sierra Nevada with a "hybrid zone centered along the Kaweah River in Tulare County."

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
No significant threats to Sierra Newts have been identified.
Populations of related Taricha along the coast have suffered population declines due to habitat loss and alteration caused by human activity, and from introduced predatory mosquitofish, crayfish, and bullfrogs, which eat the non-poisonous larvae and eggs. Breeding ponds have been destroyed for development, and stream pools used for breeding have been destroyed by sedimentation caused by wildfires. These may all be similar threats to the sierra subspecies.
Family Salamandridae Newts Goldfuss, 1820
Genus Taricha Pacific Newts Gray, 1850

sierrae Sierra Newt (Twitty, 1942)
Original Description
Taricha torosa - (Rathke, 1833) - in Eschscholtz, Zool. Atlas, Pt. 5, p. 12, pl. 21, fig. 15
Taricha torosa sierrae - Twitty, 1942 - Copeia, p. 65, pl. 1 and 4

from Original Description Citations for the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America © Ellin Beltz

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Taricha: Greek - preserved mummy, possibly referring to the rough skinned appearance.
sierrae: refers to the type locality in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

Alternate Names
California Newt
Taricha torosa sierrae - Sierra Newt

Related California Salamanders
Taricha torosa - Coast Range Newt
Taricha rivularis - Red-bellied Newt
Taricha granulosa - Rough-skinned Newt

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife


Movie of a Newt Feeding

Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M.  Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.

Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.

Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Amphibians of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Bishop, Sherman C. Handbook of Salamanders. Cornell University Press, 1943.

Lannoo, Michael (Editor). Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species. University of California Press, June 2005.

Petranka, James W. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution, 1998.

1 Herpetologica, 63(3), 2007, 332–350 E 2007 by The Herpetologists’ League, Inc.
Contact Zones and Species Limits: Hybridization Between Lineages of the California Newt, Taricha torosa, in the southern Sierra Nevada
Shawn R. Kuchta

Conservation Status

The following status listings come from the Special Animals List and the Endangered and Threatened Animals List which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

This salamander is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.

Status Listing
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife SSC California Species of Special Concern
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None

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