Paul Licht, director of the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, is undoubtedly a plant guy, but long before he got involved with the garden, he was a newt man. In fact, he still is.

"People ask me why I get so turned on by newts," Licht says, "and I don't really know why. They are fascinating animals. Fascinating. But once people learn about them, they get fascinated, too."

Fortunately for Licht and newt fans -- novice and experienced -- the Botanical Garden's Japanese pool offers probably the best location for observing newts in action. And man, is there a lot of action this time of year.

It's mating season for the newts, and like salmon and sea turtles, newts who spawned in the pool make their way back every year, once they are of age, to repeat the process.

Newts like moist places, but they only take to the water to breed and spawn. (Photo by Paul Licht)
Newts like moist places, but they only take to the water to breed and spawn. (Photo by Paul Licht)

Licht discovered the amazing world of newts in 1964, as a young Cal zoology student. The love affair lingers.

The pool at the Garden is an excellent spot to observe the little amphibians also known as salamanders. The water is clear and you can walk right up the edge and peer in.

The Bay Area is home to several species of newts, but the two that use the pond for newt love are Taricha torosa (California newt) and Taricha granulosa (rough-skin newt). The differences between the two are so minute that it takes someone like Licht to tell them apart. But there is one easy way to distinguish them: The California newt lays multiple eggs in sacs while the rough-skin newt lays them singly.


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The mating process is the opposite of risque. This is no "50 Shades of Brown."

It begins, Licht explains, when the winter rains drive the male newts out of their hiding places -- they are very secretive animals, he points out -- and sends them high-stepping to the pond. The hormone that fuels the "water drive" is the exact same one that triggers lactation in women.

Once the male newts arrive at the pond they hop in and begin a metamorphosis. Their lizardlike tails lengthen and flatten, becoming fishlike. Their legs also beef up as they will need them to hold onto the females, who arrive sometime later.

Once the ladies show up, the courtship begins. The male picks a mate, swimming around her, vying for her favor. Sometimes several males will swarm one female, jockeying for position, but she will eventually choose one, who climbs on her back and holds her as they float in the water.

Once the mating contract has been made, the male drops to the bottom of the pond, leaves a deposit of semen and beckons the female to join him. She then dives down, applies the semen to her eggs and goes off alone to deposit them, usually on the stems of water lilies.

Once the female has depleted her egg supply she leaves the pond, but males will hang around, sometimes for months.

There's no way to predict how long the mating season will last. Licht says the pond is filling with eggs, but nowhere near as many as it usually has. He predicts another few weeks of action. After that, visitors can watch the eggs develop and the baby newts hatch.

It's an excellent show. For information, go to http://botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu.

And if you're more of a plant guy than a newt "guy," mark your calendar for the spring plant sale at the Garden, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 27. This is one of the best sales around, offering unusual and rare plants from around the world.

You also can check out the pond for newts that still will be hanging around.

Joan Morris' column runs five days a week in print and online. Contact her at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com; or P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.