In the face of fight or flight situations, there exists a third option that involves an elaborate deception—faking death.
Now, playing dead is no novelty in the animal kingdom.
For instance, the opossum sells the act like a true thespian, to the point of reeking like a rotting carcass. Other famous death fakers include particular species of snakes, ducks, and fish.
Frogs and toads also go belly-up to outwit predators. But do newts play dead like their close cousins?
The short answer is yes!
There are over 60 species of newts scattered in lakes and ponds around the world. Yet, the intriguing behavior of playing dead has only been observed in a select few, including the following:
- Smooth newts
- Rough-skinned newts
- Emperor newts
- Golden-crested newts
Feigning death, known scientifically as thanatosis or tonic immobility, is an anti-predator adaptation in many animals. It’s a clever ploy meant to outsmart predators that track movements when stalking prey.
Some creatures up the dramatics with blood-spitting, drooling, tremors, and labored breathing.
But newts are more subtle. For instance, smooth newts flip onto their backs and turn rigid like a twig.
Rough-skinned newts, on the other hand, assume a defensive posture called the unken reflex. When threatened, they arch their back and form a C shape.
In both cases, the tricksters expose their brightly-colored bellies to ward off would-be assailants. The bold colors serve as a visual deterrent, marking toxicity or unpalatability.
Charles Darwin once observed a beetle freeze up for 23 minutes. However, recent research has unveiled a new champion—the antlion larvae, capable of upholding the death act for 61 minutes.
Meanwhile, how long newts “play possum” remains unexplored. Instinctively, the crafty critters snap out from rigor mortis once the coast is clear.
Experts have found that the length of time a death faker stays “lifeless” is widely unpredictable. Yet, in the arms race between predators and prey, the weaker species seem to take the upper hand with their trickery.
Not all newts can pretend to be a goner to avoid predation, but they do have a few tricks up their sleeves. Aside from fake deaths, here’s more bad news for their predators:
Many species of newts rely on their coloration to blend seamlessly into their surroundings. While most have colorful underbellies, the skin on their back is either black, brown, or olive.
The brown pigmentation of smooth and rough-skinned newts resembles leaf litter, while the marbled newt mimics the shade of fresh moss in the morning.
Some newts produce a paralyzing neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin (TTX). It’s the same poison found in pufferfish and 10,000 times more toxic than cyanide.
The toxin from an orange-bellied, rough-skinned newt is enough to kill 25,000 mice or one fully-grown man. It plugs sodium channels in the nerves, preventing them from sending signals to the muscles.
This spells trouble and a host of neurological symptoms, such as:
- Muscle weakness
- Difficulty breathing
Interestingly, the common garter snake has evolved to resist newts by changing the shape of its sodium channels.
Newts can self-amputate their tails to escape and divert a predator’s attention. They have a weak point in their tail where it can detach easily.
By contracting specific muscles near the fracture plane, they weaken the connection between their body and tail.
Ultimately, a newt can break from a predator’s grasp, leaving it with only a fraction of its tail. After shedding its tail, a newt can regenerate a brand-new one.
The Spanish and Iberian ribbed newts have mutant superpowers like Wolverine, and we’re not exaggerating. By arching its back and rotating its ribs, the newt stretches its skin until the rib ends poke out.
The weaponized newt can injure a predator’s mouth and inject deadly toxins at the same time, causing intense pain or death.
Remarkably, this unique defense mechanism doesn’t harm the ribbed newt itself. Despite forcing its bones during an attack, it can reconstruct damaged tissues without lasting consequences.
Newts play dead as a last-ditch effort to evade becoming a meal. This ruse lets them outwit formidable foes like badgers, foxes, and snakes.
Feigning death makes them unsavory prey for nearby predators, but this is just one aspect of the soft-bodied creature’s hardcore adaptations.
These tiny amphibians show that looks can be deceiving, and predators learn the hard way not to mess with them.
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.