In 2012 I was on a hiking trip in Oregon and, tempted by the windfall of protein it would represent, I started to collect and prepare a bag full of rough-skinned newts for dinner.
Taricha Granulosa, the rough-skinned newt, is a very common species of salamander along the West Coast of the United states and British Columbia, from as far south as Santa Cruz, California to as far north as Alaska. It is one of the most ridiculously poisonous animals in existence.
I encountered this species often during 2012, when I walked the Pacific Coastal Range mountains. They are as common as slugs or snails in these moist forests.
Since I had experience and gear for longer trips, I was fond of supplying myself with as much food as I could carry and heading out into the logging roads and into the national forests of Southwest Oregon. I would find a nice piece of river, practice plant and animal identification, bushcraft, and forage on plants that I felt safe eating. In 2012, I was a relative newcomer to bushcraft, but I had a good deal of hiking and camping experience.
One day, I was down by the river fishing for trout. I was hungry. Carrying all your own food means your trip is limited by how much food you carry, and more weight to haul around means slower travel. I had been out for two weeks and was ready to hike back to town, but right then I had a craving for protein.
The fish were either missing entirely or just not feeding, because I fished a piece of river for two hours using every type of jig and bait I could think of. After two hours I gave up the idea and started to get ready to turn in for the night. As evening approached, I started hearing frogs chirping all around my camp. There were a great many pools of water in a small forested flood plain, so I decided to go frog gigging.
When I found the frogs, I was greatly disappointed. They were miniscule. However, I noticed a massive amount of rough-skinned newt inhabiting the puddles and ponds of that area. Well, protein is protein, said I, and got to work collecting a bag full of more than two dozen live, squirming, angry rough-skinned newts.
I opened up my gear and set up my camp stove, pot, and heated up some olive oil. “Garlic would be nice,” I thought, looking at the dark slimy mass of creatures I planned to feast on. I removed one of the largest newts and got out my knife, ready to dress them for dinner. “There are so many of these animals here,” I thought, “If these are good, then I should have quite a windfall of protein that I don’t have to carry in.”
“Why are there so damn many?”
It was at this moment, with a Taricha granulosa held down and my knife poised to kill and gut the little amphibian, that my time observing the forest saved my life. Why don’t I see the coyote, racoons, opossum, bear, or birds eating the rough-skinned newt? Why are there so many here and nothing is eating them? I’ve never heard of any North American animals being particularly toxic, but this particular critter has some kind of advantage here.
I let the rough-skinned newts go, and ate oatmeal that night, vowing to head into town to resupply and do some research when I got there.
What I learned next, I could hardly believe. The taricha granulosa, or rough-skinned newt, is one of the most ridiculously poisonous creatures alive. The skin glands of the newt produce tetrodotoxin, or TTX, a neurotoxin found in pufferfish, porcupinefish, ocean sunfish or mola, triggerfish, blue-ring octopus, and rough-skinned newt. In the 1950’s, three Oregon hunters were found dead around the camp fire, with no signs of explanation. A boiled rough-skinned newt was found in their coffee pot. In 1979, an Oregon man in a bar swallowed a rough-skinned newt on a dare. He was dead before the day was out.
Where the rough-skinned newt and the common garter snake share space, there is a war at work. The toxin of the newt has increased in response to the resistance of the snake. The 1950’s incident led to research by E D Brodie Jr., now of the Department of Biology, Utah State University. This research was published in a 1968 paper on the toxin of rough-skinned newt.
“Thirty species of potential predators on Taricha granulosa were tested by injection or force-feeding to determine their susceptibility to adult T. granulosa skin toxin. All species tested were found to be susceptible to Taricha skin toxin. The action of adult T. granulosa skin toxin is identical to that described for tetrodotoxin from the eggs of T. torosa and the puffer fish. Mammals and birds are susceptible to similar relative amounts of toxin; 0.0002 cc of back skin of T. granulosa killed white mice in 10 minutes. Snakes other than garter snakes were about 200 times more resistant, and garter snakes were 2000 times more resistant than white mice. T. granulosa was self-susceptible to large doses. Garter snakes, Thamnophis sirtalis concinnus, were able to eat adult newts, even though they were killed by injections. Taricha toxin was very stable and did not lose potency over an 11-month period.”
I went back out into the forest, now properly terrified of hunting or gathering anything to add to my adventures. Rainbow trout are surely safe to eat, thought I, since everyone is catching and eating them to the point they are fished out and restocked en masse by the fish & game service. Out of curiosity, I look at what the trout are feeding on, and what was inside the belly of many catches gave me a chill. Below is a photo of a rainbow trout that was caught, fully vigorous and living, with a rough-skinned newt in its belly.
My concern grew from my newly acquired knowledge of the tetrodotoxin in the rough-skinned newt’s skin. Here it has been digested by the rainbow trout, should I eat the fish? I did eat the fish and suffered no effects from the experience. I reasoned that several trout I caught that day are eating rough skinned newt, and this species of fish is so widely consumed by anglers that they need to be restocked annually by fish & game. I was damn hungry and I ate the fish and felt fine.
Again, back to town to resupply and do more research, now totally confused. I found very little in explanation when searching online, except I learned that some people are actually using rough-skinned newt as trout bait! Here is a critter common to the Pacific Northwest that can be used like the poison dart frog of the Amazon, and we’re eating what eats it!
Does this mean the rough-skinned newt that these rainbow trout eat are less toxic? Does it depend on the locality? Is the rainbow trout resistant to tetrodotoxin, and does it bioaccumulate in the fish so widely stocked, caught, and eaten here in North America?