Newts are small and semi-aquatic creatures who belong to the Salamandridae family. At first glance, these attractive amphibians look like colorful versions of their reptile counterparts: lizards.
When it comes to behavior, newts rarely bite and are usually non-volatile in nature. Their tame disposition, ability to thrive in captivity, and low need for maintenance make them popular as pets.
However, behind newts’ fascinating looks and friendly behavior lies a deadly defense mechanism, in the form of toxic skin secretions that can paralyze predators and seriously injure humans.
In this guide, we’ll explore these tiny creatures’ interesting characteristics to find out just how poisonous, powerful, and aggressive newts are. We’ll also discuss if it’s alright to touch newts and how to stay safe when handling them.
Generally, newts have a gentle and inoffensive personality, but they aren’t fond of being handled all the time. As pets, newts enjoy interaction with tank mates and their environment, and can even form bonds with their owners, without the need for touching or cuddling.
Some newt species have better temperaments than others, like the fire-bellied newt. This newt species is shy and reclusive at first, but because it isn’t particularly territorial and aggressive, it can coexist peacefully with other newts.
Threatened newts often curve their heads toward their tails, in a defensive strategy called the “unken reflex.” This position reveals their brightly colored undersides and signals predators of their toxicity.
During mating season, male newts can display competitive and aggressive behavior as they fight with each other over a female.
Newts are friendly, docile, and non-territorial creatures, so you don’t have to worry about getting bitten. However, on rare occasions when they feel scared or threatened, newts can bite humans.
Usually, these creatures use the tooth-like structures in their mouth to hunt for food, but it’s possible for them to nip at a human out of stress during handling. Note that newts are best admired from a distance, and shouldn’t be excessively handled.
Newts have a V-shaped pattern of tiny tooth-like projections arranged on a plate on the roof of their mouths, called vomerine teeth. They’re useful for grabbing onto prey and scraping off the flesh, as opposed to chewing, cutting, or tearing flesh apart.
In the wild, newts use their vomerine teeth when feeding on slugs, insects, worms, shrimp, and water snails. Meanwhile, captive newts’ diets involve mealworms, crickets, and fruit flies.
Newts and salamanders are clawless creatures—this trait differentiates them from their reptile lookalike, lizards. Upon closer inspection, you’ll realize that newts have four fleshy toes at the end of each front foot, in contrast with lizards who have five clawed toes.
Most newts possess slender bodies, long tails, and four legs, but slight differences can occur between species. Paddle-tail newts have stubby legs, short toes, and fully webbed feet suitable for their aquatic lifestyle, while male palmate newts only have black webbed hind feet.
Interestingly, newts are masters of regeneration. They’re able to regrow their body parts countless times during their entire lifespan.
Amphibians, including newts and salamanders, don’t have scales! Instead, they typically possess smooth and moist skin, with skin glands that produce poisonous and often lethal toxins.
Rough-skinned newts are an exception to newts having smooth skin, as these creatures have a dry and granular texture all over their bodies. Some newts have combinations of brown, green, and black colors that help them camouflage and escape potential predators.
Meanwhile, other newts display bright colors and contrasting patterns that warn predators of their toxicity and prevent themselves from becoming prey. Examples of interestingly colored newts include the red-spotted newt, black-spotted newt, striped newt, and red-bellied newt.
Did you know that newts, salamanders, frogs, and toads can breathe underwater by absorbing oxygen through their extremely thin and sensitive skin? They’re able to do so through a process called cutaneous respiration.
As a defense mechanism against their predators, newts have specialized skin glands that secrete neurotoxins. Different species of newts vary in terms of toxicity, with Alpine Newts, smooth newts, marbled newts, and crested newts being some of the least toxic.
On the other hand, rough-skinned newts, California newts, Sierra newts, and red-bellied newts are highly toxic. These species produce potent toxins that prevent nerve cells from sending signals, causing tingling or numbness in low doses and paralysis and death in high amounts.
Neurotoxins secreted by the most dangerous species can be a thousand times more potent compared to cyanide, and a single newt can have enough toxin to fatally poison up to 20 people!
One case of fatal poisoning occurred in 1979 when a 29-year-old man swallowed a 20 cm newt and experienced weakness, numbness, and cardiopulmonary arrest. In another case, a scientist suffered nausea and light-headedness after a newt’s toxin entered a wound on his finger.
Like other amphibians, newts have toxic skin, so it’s a good idea to avoid touching them, especially if you have open wounds in your hands and arms. Some newt species, including rough-skinned newts, produce tetrodotoxin or TTX, a powerful paralyzing poison.
The same toxin is present in pufferfish, blue-ringed octopuses, and certain species of starfish, crabs, flatworms, and toads. Surprisingly, garter snakes have a high resistance to TTX, and can survive after eating rough-skinned newts.
If you do choose to handle newts, you can do it safely by using gloves and washing your hands immediately after. Be extra careful not to touch the mucus membranes of your eyes, mouth, and nose with unwashed hands, as a newt’s gland secretions can cause skin or eye irritation.
Note that a newt’s toxin can cause neurological symptoms and heart or lung failure when ingested, so never eat or lick a newt! Young children should only be allowed to handle newts with proper adult supervision, as they’re especially prone to putting objects in their mouths.
The next time you spot a newt while on an outdoor hike, remember to look—but don’t touch. Most newts aren’t aggressive or territorial, and chances are they’ll neither bother nor bite you.
However, these creatures have highly toxic skin, so handle them only when necessary! In addition to irritating your skin, holding a newt can cause its protective mucous covering to rub off, leaving the newt vulnerable to predation and infection.
Newts play an important ecological role in controlling insect populations, and they’re key indicators of an ecosystem’s health. Despite being deadly, these interesting creatures are definitely worth protecting and saving.
I have a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering. When I’m not constructing or remodeling X-Ray Rooms, Cardiovascular Labs, and Pharmacies, I’m at home with my wife, two daughters and a dog. Outside of family, I love grilling and barbequing on my Big Green Egg and working on projects around the house. Growing up, I had pet dogs, cats, deer, sugar gliders, chinchillas, a bird, chickens, fish, and a goat.