Newts on Patrol

David Beeson, April 2022

Palmate newt

We have Palmate Newts, Lissotriton helveticus, in and around our pond. These are amphibians and are rather like lizards in appearance, but with moist, unscally skins. They are often missed by gardeners as they keep a low profile, especially in weedy ponds.

They are not organisms I associate with rivers, although their distant cousins, frogs, will spawn in the shallow and current-free areas. But it could be I’m just not seeing them. You may know otherwise.

Newts are not active in the colder months, and I first see them when our frog tadpoles first appear – in mid-March. And the newts then hoover-up tadpoles at a rapid rate, and I currently can see zero tadpoles despite having around 30-spawn masses in February. Happy and well-fed newts, I think.

Newt pond

Our newts are Palmates, and that is not what one might suspect as they are said to prefer acidic, fish-free ponds.

“Telling smooth newts apart from palmate newts can be trying. Both are brown in colour, with a yellow/orange underbelly, and both species rarely exceed 10cm. The best way to tell females apart is the fact that the throat of the smooth newt is spotted and that of the palmate newt is plain pink or yellow. The male, in breeding condition, is easy to tell apart from the smooth newt. Palmate newt males have a filament at the tip of the tail and black webbing on the back feet, neither of which are present in smooth newts.” Amphibian and Reptile Conservation website.

Our newts have the black webbing, yet the water is distinctly alkaline as the pond is ‘topped up’ with calcium-rich tap water in spring and summer, although overwinter the rainwater will make the water mildly acidic. However, the original newts were transported here from elsewhere, which could have had naturally acidic water. Regardless, they have survived with us for over thirty years.

In the pond, they move around in groups, often a female with two accompanying males. Often the males advance and tail waft hormones (pheromones) to stimulate the female to mate. The females annually lay over 150 eggs, each individually wrapped in water plants. These eggs are 1.3–1.8 mm in diameter (2.2–3 mm with capsule). Surviving eggs hatch to form (my expression) minute newtlets with feathery external gills. There can be a surprisingly large number of newtlets if you investigate a weedy area with a fine net. The external gills are lost before the young emerge onto land and then they breathe through their moist skin and roof of the mouth.

Some publications suggest Palmate Newts are nocturnal – not here! They are very active even in bright sunlight. The species competes badly when fish are present.

You should spot the adult newts all summer, yet they move onto land in late summer and can occasionally be found in damp situations. Over winter they hibernate.

Smooth and Great Crested Newts are also found in the UK.

Our meadows are a mass of cowslips
But there is a genetic flow from garden primulas … hence this coloured cowslip
Bluebells and cowslips in the garden

Website revamp is on its way! Easier searching for articles soon.

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