Saturday, May 3, 2008

Hemisalamandras Ululata

Striped Nile Newt (Hemisalamandras Ululata)—or Newt of Hermes, as it is sometimes called—matures more rapidly and breeds more bountifully than most of its order, facilitating its curious role in the annual farmer’s celebrations on the very northern stretch of the Egyptian Nile. In spring, in an action almost synonymous with the harvest, the fertile newts emerge in great numbers and are easily caught. For reasons still unclear, they are driven instinctually to climb and leap upward before procreating, despite their natural aversion to sunlight. Consequently, these randy creatures are found in great numbers at the tops of the papyrus reeds growing along the marshy riverbanks, where they are traditionally captured by children and collected in baskets.

The children take the baskets into town and huddle by an appropriately shady wall—where they affix little wings, made the day before from colored paper, to the backs of all the newts (an exhaustive task, but apparently one much enjoyed). The wall is smeared with thick gobs of honey, and then the animals are freed. Invariably, they will choose to leap onto the wall, where they will stick fast. After some struggling, they will open their mouths wide.

The scream of the Striped Nile Newt is silent to human ears. But oxen cease parading on the threshing floor and raise their heads as if to listen, momentarily oblivious of their masters. Cranes and ibises become calm and twist their necks into odd positions. Even the beetles and winged insects stop rustling for a short spell. It is believed that the newts are securing the attention of the other creatures by lamenting the temporary death of the crops (hence that of Osiris). Pliny the Elder states that as it is mourning and in heat at the same time, the newt’s cries assume special properties which ensure the success of a harvest that would otherwise fail. This is, of course, apocryphal.

The ritual leaves behind an unpleasant mess. Many of the newts die while stuck to the wall—more if they are left too long and the sun gets to them. They will often try to crawl towards each other out of the urge to copulate, and in so doing may tear off their limbs or pieces of their tails.

Striped Nile Newts can make interesting and attractive pets. Keep newly-hatched young in terraria with plenty of water. Provide large rocks for them to hide under. Feed them mealworms and other insect larvae. They can reach several times their original size when fully grown: do not overstock. Adults generally adopt a duller color and develop a broad swimming tail, in which case their diet should change to small bits of liver or other organ meats. Avoid excessive handling and keep away from direct sunlight.

From: Purgell Runtlidge, Rare Amphibious Pets: Their Appeal and Proper Care. Crown Publishers, 1926: p. 41-2.