14 August 2012

Newts for Beginners

This year, Froglife has been focussing on our most dragon-like native wildlife to celebrate the year Chinese of the Dragon. As well as our Great Crafted Newt Competition, we’ve been taking our Dragon’s Den event for young people out on tour, introducing hundreds of children to our three native newt species.

Although many parents remember meeting real newts when they were young, we’ve been reminded how unsung these beautiful little animals are. Lots of young people know what a frog is; not so many recognise this other pond dweller. Perhaps this is because frogs feature in lots of fairy stories, while newts are slightly less famous! To redress the balance a bit, here’s a story about newts for beginners.  Please share to help young people learn about the dragons at the bottom of their garden...

A Great Crested Newt
A Newt's Tail 

Newts are small animals that look a bit like lizards.  Rather than scales, they have soft skin like frogs.  They look shiny when they are in the water, and velvety when they are on land. We have three different species of newts here in the UK; the Great crested, the Smooth and the Palmate. Telling them apart can be a bit tricky, but Great crested newts are big and black, while Smooth and Palmate newts are smaller and browny coloured. They are all really incredible animals with an amazing life, full of change and adventure.

Newts have bright coloured bellies
Like frogs, newts start life in the water as an egg. Spring is an exciting time for these animals, when male and female newts gather in ponds.  As it gets dark they start a special dance to pick a mate. The male newts dance to flash their brightly coloured bellies and waggle their tales towards the females. Each newt has a different pattern on its belly and its own particular smell. If the lady newt is impressed, the newts mate and she will lay eggs, each one carefully wrapped in a leaf around the edge of the pond.

Newts start life as eggs wrapped in in the leaves of pond plants
After breeding time, most of the adult newts leave to explore the land, looking for places to hide under logs, bricks and leaves where they also hunt for all sorts of bugs. Newts need to watch out for other animals like birds, foxes, hedgehogs, cats and dogs that might try to eat them.  This is why having long grass, log piles and compost heaps in your garden is a good thing to do to help newts.

Meanwhile in the pond, the tiny eggs start to develop into newt tadpoles called efts. The efts gobble their way out of the jelly that surrounds them, and then spend the next few months swimming and growing in the water. Efts have gills that let them breathe under water, like fish. However, unlike fish, these gills are outside their bodies – they look like a mane of feathery hair floating around their faces.

Newt tadpoles have feathery gills that help the breathe underwater
The pond is an exciting place, full of bugs to eat, but also full of things that might eat a tiny eft, like dragonfly larvae and fish. Efts that survive will grow, develop legs, keep their long tails and slowly lose the gills so that they can breathe out of the water.

At the end of the summer, the efts have become tiny newts that leave their ponds and head into hiding like the adult newts. Newts, frogs, toads, snakes and lizards start to slow down when the weather gets cooler in autumn. Heading back to log piles, fallen leaves, woodland and rockeries, all the animals will go into a deep hibernation sleep over winter. When spring comes, the warmer weather wakes the newts up and they will make their way back to the ponds to start dancing again....

A Smooth Newt crawls through the undergrowth
You might be lucky enough to spot one of these tiny dragons in your garden, in a pond, a park or local nature reserve.  Take a second to look and appreciate these strange and wonderful characters.  Some newts have become quite rare, so they need your help to make sure they survive into the future. 
Photos: Sivi Sivanesan, Jules, Howard, and Sarah Williams

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