Witness Post: Eye of Newt
Walking sluggishly down the gravely path toward the unlit livery stable was a grotesque reptile with rough brownish skin. It was the size of a chewed off wood pencil. As it slowly turned its head to one side, I could see glimpses of a colorful underbelly. Bright Orange! Its flip side was dramatically different from the topside. At first I thought it was a salamander seeking a nearby creek, but soon realized it was a newt in search of food. It would easily be road-kill unless I acted.
Called a Taricha granulosa (or T. granulosa) by herpetologists, this granular skinned amphibian has several nicknames: Western Newt, Mazama Newt, Orange-bellied Newt, Rough-skinned Newt, Oregon Newt, or Crater Lake Newt. Its habitat ranges from Southeastern Alaska and British Columbia, south to Santa Cruz, California and east to Idaho and Montana. 
Its rough brownish exterior provides excellent camouflage, as it is hard to spot in the wild. The notoriety for this colorful crawler comes from its belly, which is surprisingly bright, even in the dead of winter. Southern range pet store owners sometimes call this the Oregon Newt, although the southern species are more likely California Newts (Trachia torosa), which have different eyes, teeth, and head patterns.
Picking up the Newt, I flipped it over, took some iPhone camera shots of it and marveled at its beautiful belly. Not attempting to bite me, I thought I was OK handling this slow crawler with my bare hands and I moved it out of the road and onto a nearby rock, safe from traffic. What I had not realized was that the skin of the Newt is poisonous, even to the touch.
Jogging back to my house I wiped some sweat from my brow and my eye started to itch. It was hurting pretty much when I walked into the kitchen, so I flushed out my eye with water. Luckily it was BCS bowl season and I could laze around the house for the rest of the day. I had been cutting onions and garlic earlier in the day for a brisket of beef, so I assumed that those ingredients were the cause of my discomfort. My eye felt better in a couple of hours so I did not think much more of it.
Apparently all newts contain toxins that are used as a defense against predators. Rough-skinned Newts are exceptionally potent in this regard, producing a powerful neuro-toxin called tetrodotoxin. While generally these newts are perfectly harmless to handle for most people, the toxins are known irritants to bare skin and mucous membranes of some individuals. I now realize I am one of the “toxic ones”. Outdoorsmen should always wash their hands after handling Newts, as I came to know, even an accidental rubbing of the eyes can be very painful. I was glad to learn that it for the most part the occasional toxin is not serious.
Double, Double, Toil and Trouble
On the other hand, in the literature there have been human deaths documented after ingesting Newts.  I could not find any record of an Oregonian dying from eating a Newt, but I am not sure exactly how it would be reported, so I could be wrong. As a Shakespeare fan, however, it is curious to think about Macbeth (Act IV, Scene 1) and the inclusion of three pot-stirring witches who are concocting a brew with Newt as part of the elixir. When the trio of hags adds slithering creatures and flying mammals to the caldron, it makes the hair stand up on my neck:
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Makes you wonder about Newts, doesn’t it? I will have to be more thoughtful when I pick up something I am more curious about than careful.