Can a newt kill you?

March 16, 2018, 10:17 a.m.

When you spot a newt crossing the hiking path ahead of you, you might think it’s just another cute creature to add to your species sighting list. Of course, it is another cute creature - but it’s also a creature with a seriously strong built-in defense mechanism.

Newts are part of the genus Taricha, and these species produce neurotoxins to ward off being eaten by predators. Just how strong of a toxin? Tetrodoxtoxin, or TTX, is the same neurotoxin that's found in pufferfish and some other animals. It's hundreds of times more toxic than cyanide. It's strong enough to kill most vertebrates if it's ingested. Most predators will avoid newts, and wisely so. However, the common garter snake is known to feast on newts because it has built up a tolerance for the toxin in a long evolutionary arms race.

But can a newt really kill a human? Yes! But only if you swallow it. The proof is in the death of a 29-year-old man who swallowed one on a bet in 1979.

Thankfully, you likely won’t come to harm if you only touch a newt — such as moving one off a road when you see it crossing after a rain. Just be sure to wash your hands immediately after.

Want to see the newt’s special defense strategy in action? Here’s video of a newt being spit back up after getting swallowed by a would-be predator.

Related on MNN: What's the difference between a salamander and a newt?