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UC Berkeley botanical garden launches campaign to save the newts’ breeding ground

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The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden began a “Save Our Newts” campaign.


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JUNE 05, 2023

The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden began a “Save Our Newts” campaign to raise money to fix cracks in its Japanese garden pool so the pool does not collapse.

The campaign aims to raise $150,000 to fix the deteriorating pond because the pool is a breeding ground for two species of native Californian newts and a hallmark of the garden’s Asian collection, according to the campaign’s website. Along with newts, the Japanese pool is home to other native species such as frogs, toads and water insects.

“You have two things going on, a beautiful area for its own purposes and aesthetics is going to fail, and then this major biological resource for local fauna, which will be lost if the pond does collapse,” said former botanical garden director emeritus Paul Licht. “We’re at an urgent place. I don’t think we can wait another summer to deal with this.”

Although the botanical garden staff have made small repairs over the last 80 years since the pool’s installation, the damage now requires the pool to be completely drained and repaired. Otherwise, Litch said it might cause a “catastrophic event.”

No matter when the pool is repaired, it will affect the newt population, Licht noted, but garden staff chose the summer because most adult newts are gone and their larvae have transformed. The remaining newts will be caught and held in holding facilities while the pool is drained.

“They have the strong instinct to go back to the pool,” Litch said. “There are others in the garden; we have several other small pools. We’ve never seen newts in them — I think our newts are pretty focused on this one major site.”

The two species of newt — California newt and roughskin newt — require certain habitats in order to breed according to Tammy Lim, resource analyst for the East Bay Regional Park District. This includes significant amounts of water for most of the year during breeding and while larvae are going through metamorphosis.

Newts are at risk of local extinction due to vehicular mortalities and urban development and expansion, explained Alan Shabel, a continuing lecturer in the campus integrative biology department.

“Because they need to move such long distances on the land surface, they become vulnerable, particularly to cars, and they’re slow and plodding,” Shabel said. “They simply can’t make it across a busy road. And I suspect that’s why you don’t see them at all in the city.”

In nearby Tilden Regional Park, South Park Drive is closed during the rainy season each year to allow migrating newts to cross the street, according to Lim. Although the road is open to pedestrians and bicycles, cars are not allowed to drive on it to allow for the crossing.

Both species of newt are incredibly toxic, which has resulted in a biological arms race between the newt species and local garter snakes as the snakes evolve to withstand the newts’ toxins and the newts evolve, becoming more toxic, Licht noted.

Newts are carnivores and are therefore an integral part of the Bay Area ecosystem by helping to control the population of small invertebrates such as insects and worms, according to Litch.

Shabel teaches a California Natural History class with a unit focused on newts and their significance because of their biological importance in the area. In Shabel’s class, students go on field trips to observe newts in their natural habitat.

“The topic of newts or the word newt somehow captivates people and draws them in. That includes me,” Shabel said. “When you are able to interact with them and hold them, they’re just endearing creatures, and then scientifically, they’re so extraordinary.”

Contact Laurel Spear at 


JUNE 05, 2023