Until fairly recently, the Silkyback Newt was a little known, largely unregarded inhabitant of the more inaccessible creeks and subterranean streams in the mountain forests of the Crimson Isles. However, this strangely beautiful creature has a defensive trick – the production of the bright yellow dye which gives it the name "Folsin" – which is rapidly earning it a place in the studios, studies and dye factories of artists, scholars and artisans across Sarvonia and Nybelmar.
Amid the dampness and gloom of their often subterranean habitat, the sight of a
Silkyback Newt can be endearing, even uplifting. Coloured a bright yellow on the
upper surface of their bodies, (somewhere between injohue and strata yellow, and
a little colder than either) they stand out starkly against the pebbly bottom of
a stream or pool. When they want to hide, they roll over onto their backs to
display dully grey undersides speckled with black, which blend in far better.
Generally, though, they use this camouflage only if disturbed, and so they are
easy to spot, drifting lazily through the water.
More remarkable than just their bright colouration, though, is the crest which adorns the back, head and tail of the newt. Best visible when underwater, the crest is composed of hundreds of tiny hollow tendrils, which inflate with water as the newt swims, and looks almost like a mane of urmarillion yellow hair running from the head of the newt, and the area behind the jaws where the gills were in infancy, to the tip of its tail. This mane seems to function both as a set of gills and a filter-feeding apparatus, and the newt will often reach one of its front feet behind it, to comb some trapped morsel of food from the crest, and eat it. Indeed, in low lights the tips of the crest seem to glow slightly, possibly attracting tiny insects towards it so they will become entangled.
When the newt ventures onto land, though, the crest deflates, looking like a filmy covering of slime on the upper surface of the animal.
The head is large, and slightly flattened, with a wide mouth which, when opened, seems to have no teeth, but a violently coloured tongue, which can be launched at prey, much like that of a frog. Depending on the specific area the newt was born, sometimes even the particular pool, the tongue may be any one of a myriad of shades from bright gnastheen green, to blue, purple or vontromarine.
The eyes are rather large, and extremely dark, usually almost entirely black, flecked with motes of copper or gold. In breeding males, the skin around the eyes and along the ribs becomes patterned with hundreds of tiny pinpricks of ithild grey-white, which show up beautifully on the bright yellow background.
Tadpoles are more rarely observed, as the breeding season is brief, and young mature almost entirely underground. Eggs are laid as a mass of translucent jelly, and hatch into small, orange-brown tadpoles with prominent red external gills. As the tadpoles mature and grow legs, they pale to a brighter, more Sor’inyt orange colour, but seem to keep the gills until autumn rains flush them out into the larger streams where they will spend the majority of their lives. At this point the skin will lighten further, and the gills will start to grow longer and paler, and spread to cover the back and eventually the tail. They continue to grow throughout the newt’s life, especially those at the tip of the tail, which often form a long streamer on older specimens, trailing behind the newt for several nailsbreadths.
The ornate urmarillion crest of the Silkyback Newt is a remarkably useful
adornment, functioning as an aid to breathing underwater, a means of catching
food with no effort on the newt’s part, an attraction to potential mates, and
even a defence against predators.
Though the newt can breathe on land, it has no lungs, and so must keep its skin moist to do so. Underwater it also seems to breathe through its skin, using the crest on its back as a set of pseudo-gills to increase the surface area of the skin enough that it can remain underwater indefinitely without surfacing. Experiments by Nybelmarian researchers with captive hairy newts even went so far as to suggest that in water with low oxygen levels, the newts could survive better than some kinds of fish. The trade-off in this, though, is that those which have the best crests are most vulnerable when out of the water – long crests dry out and become damaged easily, and handling a newt out of the water should only be done with great care, as the crest is very easy to tear when out of the water.
As a means of catching food by filter-feeding, the crest seems to work best in the dark, when it starts to glow faintly at the tips, and will attract creatures such as Skeetoh larvae, which soon become tangled in the tendrils. Silkyback Newts seem fairly sensitive to the movements of trapped prey, and will comb them out of their crest with surprising dexterity. Though this forms a large part of the newt’s diet, is not always enough on its own to keep them fed, and they do tend to supplement their diet by more conventional hunting methods.
There are few predators in the shallow streams which the Silkyback Newts inhabit, but they are targeted voraciously by migrating gossiper birds, as well as the local race of wood owl, and have a number of strategies to try and defend themselves. Whenever they feel disturbed, a newts’ first reaction will be to turn over onto its back, and let itself drift to the bottom of the stream or pool it is in. The natural camouflage of its undersides blends very well with the gravelly bottom of most streams, and thus by staying still it often goes undetected. If, however, a predator creeps up on it without its noticing, or is cunning enough to discern the outline of a newt hiding on the stream bed, it will often be saved by its crest, which will tear very easily if grabbed, often leaving an attacking owl with nothing but a beak full of tendrils, while the newt swims away to a better hiding place.
Finally, if an owl succeeds in catching itself a Silkyback Newt, there is one last trick it must be wary of – under even gentle pressure, the skin of the Silkyback Newt will begin to lose its colour, exuding a bright yellow substance which stains very easily onto fur, skin, cloth and scales – a fact that many a researcher has found out to their cost. The colour remains for up to a week if not scrubbed away with hot water and prodigious quantities of soap. Whilst it doesn’t seem to have any ill effects, it is off-putting enough to deter many predators, and acts as a warning to potential prey by marking out the creature covered in it as a newt-killer.
Territory. The Silkyback Newt originally hails from the Crimson Isles, to the East of the continent of Nybelmar. The newt was widespread in the mountainous forests of three of the main islands (the Eastern island apparently having lost its newts due to over-hunting), especially in the Lÿokx mountains of the northernmost island, where they were first discovered.
Since the islands were first discovered by traders, the Silkyback Newt has been transported on ships, bound both for Nybelmar and Sarvonia. Nybelmar is believed to have developed the practise of extracting folsin long before the Sarvonians, as they knew of the islands, and their fauna, much earlier. Though live Silkybacks were only recently brought to Sarvonia, the ease with which they can be kept and bred in captivity has encouraged their spread across populated areas of the continent, especially to towns such as Carmalad, where the dye they produce is always useful.
Habitat/Behaviour. In the wild, Silkyback Newts live in the mountain streams and underwater springs of the Crimson Isles. They are little studied in this habitat, the bulk of our knowledge coming from the research of an unknown researcher of Santerran origins, who observed the newts living near the source of the Kharda river, in the forests of the Lÿokx Mountains. The eggs are laid in pools underground, or at the very least sheltered under rocky overhangs, and travel out to the main streams as they reach adulthood.
The newts aren’t particularly sociable, but seem to tolerate each other’s presence peacefully, often swimming round a new arrival to their particular stretch of water and brushing against its crest in curiosity. Like many amphibians, their main aim in life appears to be to avoid any hassle or real effort, and they seem very content to float indefinitely, filtering food through their tendrils, and snapping up any other creature that comes near to supplement their diet.
Occasionally though, a change in the water level, or some other disturbance, will prompt them to venture onto land, whereupon they show surprisingly tenacious natures, clambering over any obstacle, supposedly in the single minded search for another body of water, as the drying out of their skin is a constant hazard while they are out of the water. On scenting water, they will march in an uninterrupted line towards where they think it is, climbing any obstacle in their way, even if an easier route is but a couple of steps to one side.
Diet. Silkyback Newts live off insects and other minute creatures. Most of these are caught through entanglement in their specially adapted crests, but some will be snapped up opportunistically if the newt should happen to see them. They have also been observed occasionally to lick at certain mosses and algae growing at the edges of their pools, often congregating in large numbers to do so. There have been researchers who argue that these plants are the source of the chymical which makes them so bright yellow, and which therefore allows them to transfer that yellow to anything which handles them too roughly. Thus it is advised that captive newts kept for their colour should be occasionally offered pieces of moss or algae to eat.
Mating. As the crest continues to grow throughout the Silkyback Newt’s life, those with the longest crests are almost invariably the oldest, and accordingly, tend to command them most breeding opportunities, presumably because potential mates assume that, having survived so long, the newt in question is probably fairly good at keeping out of trouble.
As the weather starts to warm in spring, male Silkyback Newts change colour, developing patterns of silvery dots along their sides and round their eyes to signal that they are ready to breed. Females respond by travelling with them to the breeding pools they hatched from, where they will lay eggs and depart. Clearly there is some importance in returning to the right pool, and newts reaching such pools will often be challenged by those already there, who gape at them, displaying the characteristic brightly coloured mouth. If a newt thinks it has returned to the right pool, and has the same mouth-colour as the challenger, it will reply in kind, the shades will be compared, and it will be allowed to pass if they match.
If the newt has chosen the wrong pool, or misjudged the shades, and the two have differently coloured mouths, the newcomer will be chased away. What causes such subtle differentiation in the colour of their mouths is unknown – some researchers have suggested it could be some chymical differences in the rock or the water of the pools, or even a product of inbreeding. Whatever the truth, the newts seem to think it vital they breed only with other newts of the same mouth colour, making captive breeding tricky, and often involving lengthy colour comparisons between the newts’ owners.
Usages. The vibrant yellow colour of Silkyback Newts is much prized as a dye, and many are kept in captivity in order to produce it. When dye is required, the newts are taken out of the water, placed over a collecting bottle, and gently pressed with sticks, to prompt them to produce the dye, known as “fool’s injèrá”, a term often shortened to “folsin” for convenience. This substance can then be used to dye fabrics (though it must be mixed with other substances and heat treated to make a permanent dye), or to make paints, lacquers and inks by various processes. Because of this, they are a common sight in Carmalad, where they have become a key part of the art-supplies industry. Although better quality, less variable yellows can be obtained from recognised mixtures such as Injohue or Korwyn gold, folsin is cheap and quick to produce, and so has become one of the commoner sources of yellow paints and dyes across Nybelmar and, more recently, Sarvonia (though the name tends to be less well known, as the colour produced is often passed off as a more recognised shade, such as injohue).
Silkyback Newts are fairly easy to keep, requiring only clean, fresh water, no strong sunlight, a supply of small insects, and the occasional piece of moss to chew. As such, their beauty and inexpensive nature has made them a popular pet among artists.
Lately, scholars have also started keeping them, as an increasing number discover that the yellow they produce is bright enough to be easily visible against text, without actually obscuring the text – thus Folsin can be applied on top of pre-existing writing to draw attention to certain passages, a very useful application for researchers, scholars and scribes. This “highlighting” can be done without having to buy treated inks, as well – a thumb applied sharply to the rump of a pet newt will be coated with enough folsin to illuminate several lines of text. Thus a bright yellow thumb or index finger is increasingly becoming a sign of a scholar, in some areas.
Researchers. The bulk of knowledge on the habits of wild Silkyback Newts comes from Santerran scholars, who were among the first to document these newts and keep them in captivity. From those first specimens, and the many more that followed once their use was understood, folsin production has become commonplace in many parts of Nybelmar, and is considerably more advanced than the largely home - made, low quality industry found in Sarvonia. The notes of Santerran researchers were invaluable in compiling this research, especially as wild Silkyback Newts have become somewhat rare, due to overcollection for trade.