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An Eye on Newts : Professor Studies How Amphibians Fared in the Fires

January 02, 1994|PENELOPE MOFFET | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS — "Where the newts beckon, their follower must go, and if this exposes him to the harshness of the California springtime . . . well, this is the price he must pay with all the fortitude he can muster." --Victor Twitty, "Of Scientists and Salamanders."

*

Lee Kats is wearing shorts and sandals, standing in the middle of an ankle-deep, 49-degree stream on a brisk December afternoon. He is chatting about the life of the California newt, a kind of salamander, and claims he isn't chilled.

"I get so into it I don't even think about the fact that my feet are cold," says Kats, 31, a Pepperdine University natural sciences professor who has been studying amphibians at Cold Creek Canyon Preserve near Malibu for three years.

Kats is exploring the impact on amphibians of the Nov. 2 fire that roared through Cold Creek, destroying even the aquatic vegetation lining the stream.

"What made Cold Creek unique before has really made it unique now," he said.

He was initially attracted to Cold Creek because its amphibian life is largely intact, thanks to the purity of its water and the absence of non-native fish species. In many other streams, such fish are wreaking havoc on indigenous animals, particularly the amphibians.

"It's a perennial stream," Kats said, "and it's one of the most pristine streams in the Santa Monica Mountains."

Kats mainly focuses on California newts in his work at the preserve, which is owned and managed by the Mountains Restoration Trust and which has been closed to the public since the fire. He thinks the newts serve as "primary indicators of the health of the Santa Monica Mountains, where they spend significant amounts of time in both perennial water and away from the stream.

"We'll be monitoring this population long-term. These animals are very fragile, because they can't easily move from one watershed to the next. You can see the extinction of local populations very easily."

When newt larvae hatch from eggs laid in water, they have gills. As they mature, they develop lungs and legs. Adult newts look like pudgy, amber-colored lizards.

The slow-moving adults, whose orange skin contains a toxin that attacks the nervous systems of predators, live mostly on land. They return to the water for a few months each year to mate and lay eggs.

The adults usually begin returning to the water in early January. Kats' research indicates they appear at the same pools each year, but those pools have filled up with debris washed down from the denuded hills.

This year, Kats wonders, "When the animals come back, assuming they made it through the fire, where are they going to lay their eggs?

"Last winter I stood here in the pouring rain and watched the newts pour out of the hills," he said. "But that was through rich leaf litter. Who knows what it's going to be like this year? They might be surfing on a mudslide."

Little is known about newts. They have not been greatly studied since Victor Twitty, a Stanford biologist, focused on them in the 1950s and '60s.

Kats thinks newts live underground when they're away from water. He doesn't know if they can make it through a fire as hot as the one at Cold Creek.

"Any number of hypotheses come to mind," Kats said. "The fire might have driven them even deeper underground."

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Kats also wonders if the still-strong char smell will reduce the animals' ability to migrate back to the stream. Newts depend greatly on their sense of smell.

In the small world of amphibian research, Kats' work is respected by his peers. Peter Morin, a Rutgers University biology professor who is studying the Pine Barrens tree frog, calls Kats' work on newt larvae behavior "cutting-edge" and "fascinating."

Kats demonstrated that the larvae are apparently able to smell and avoid adult newts, which sometimes prey on their own young. The findings, Morin said, "made people rethink how sophisticated these animals are."

"The fire may very well have an effect on the amount of cannibalism" this year, Kats said. If there are fewer newts and therefore fewer eggs and young, cannibalism might decrease. But "if there are fewer aquatic insects, it might mean we'll see more cannibalism," he added, because the newts need to find more food sources.

Two summers ago, Kats implanted tiny microchips in Cold Creek newts. Now he can identify individual animals with a hand-held scanner, collecting data year after year. (Newts typically live 10 to 15 years.) The chips don't allow him to track the newts, however. For that he would need radio telemetry implants, which are currently too big to use on such small animals.

Kats, who grew up in rural Indiana and earned his bachelor's degree in biology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and his Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky, has been studying amphibians since 1982.

"I tell people I studied amphibians before amphibians were cool. They only really started getting attention the last three or four years," he says.

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