Newt at UC Botanical Garen
The UC Botanical Garden’s Japanese Pool is home to many newts. Credit: Laurie Twitchell

When the UC Botanical Garden revealed in May that its volunteers were finding newts drowning at the bottom of the 80-year-old Japanese Pool, garden lovers rallied to “save the newts.” 

Donations to seal the cracks and repair the pool poured in, and last week the garden announced it had reached its $150,000 fundraising goal. 

The effort to save the newts is now underway. Over a two-week period in mid-August, garden staff transferred roughly 100 lingering adult newts and more than 400 larvae and juvenile newts into four 100-gallon holding tanks, where they’ll have access to fresh water, perches, and food — bloodworms and frog tadpoles.

Newts on top of a brick inside of a 50-gallon holding tank. A tube helps oxygenate the tank
Newts hang out in a holding tank at the UC Botanical Garden. Credit: UC Botanical Garden

“We’d rather them in the pond, but they seem very content in the tanks at the moment,” said Andrew Doran, the garden’s director of collections. 

The pond was recently drained in a four-day process that revealed “fist-sized” holes where water was leaking into the ground below. The newts were getting stuck in cracks, sucked down by the flow of water, and were unable to surface for air.

In mid-September, a crew will begin plugging the holes and cracks with cement, power washing the pond base, and covering the base of the pond with a layer of polyurethane, a process that will take roughly a week. Doran estimates that the repairs will extend the life of the pond another 20 to 30 years. 

To displace fewer newts, the garden needed the repairs to begin in the summer, when most newts are estivating on dry land, and conclude well ahead of the spring breeding season.

A student wearing waders transfers newts from a pond to a black bucket
UC Berkeley student Cole Bruhnke carefully transfers newts from the pond into buckets. Credit: UC Botanical Garden

When the repair work is complete, garden staff will plant newly acquired aquatic plants from partnering botanical gardens — including Nymphaea candida (from the Smithsonian Museum) and Nymphaea tetragona (from the Wuhan Botanical Garden) — in the pond. The garden acquired the plants for free, due to a longstanding agreement between many botanical gardens. 

These plants will replace the “out of control” hybrid water lily of unknown origin that had been growing in the pond. The hybrid water lilies violated the garden’s collections policy, which generally limits acquisitions to wild-collected specimens of documented origin, with a few exceptions. “As a research botanic garden, we do need to have detailed information of all our accessions, otherwise they are of little or no use to scientific research,” Doran said. 

Two horticulturists remove a giant hybrid water lily from a pool, set to be drained for repairs.
Horticulturists James Fong and Eric Hupperts remove plants from the Japanese Pool. Credit: UC Botanical Garden

He’s hopeful the newts will return despite the slight change in aquatic vegetation.

“We’re expecting – fingers crossed – a whole lot of adults to reappear in the pond, but I’m slightly excited about the fact that we’ve held onto a lot of the larvae so they can’t crawl out [of] the pond and will have to make their homes and become adults,” Doran said. “Their locality, hopefully, will be imprinted on them as adults, so it’s always going to be that pond that they’ll return to.”

The Japanese Pool opened to visitors in 1941, and was built using materials from the Japanese section of the 1939 Golden Gate Exhibition on Treasure Island. The artificial pond quickly became a go-to mating spot for local salamanders: California newts (Taricha torosa) and rough-skinned newts (Taricha granulosa). Before the juvenile newts are released back into the pond, former Garden Director Emeritus Paul Licht, who has followed the newt population in the garden for nearly two decades, plans to identify some of the newts to get a sense of what percentage of the captured newts are California newts and what percent are rough-skinned.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...