Newt encounters in the garden

Palmate newt showing spotty underside

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-Roving) Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. This week Rowena examines the interesting lives of our pond-living friends the palmate newt.

Today I dragged a net slowly and gently along the duckweed-covered surface of our small garden pond and what do you think I caught?

My catch was quite dramatic actually – the net was writhing with dark brown palmate newts (Lissotriton helveticus), wet and shiny from the water and very slippery. They had been lurking together just beneath the surface of the water.  

A netful of palmate newts_Rowena Millar

A netful of palmate newts_Rowena Millar

In June we are coming towards the end of a frenetic and important time of year for newts: breeding season. I think my newt catch had felt safe under their vivid green duckweed canopy, through which they could easily gulp a mouthful of air every now and again. Their little minds had probably been preoccupied with mating, and they had certainly been quite close to each other in the water. Looking into my net, although they were all clambering and slithering under the duckweed to hide, it was quite easy to tell the difference between the females and the males. The pregnant females were quite swollen with eggs, whereas the males were in full breeding colours – well, it wasn’t the ostentatious crested spectacle of male great crested newts (Triturus cristatus) nor the also-quite-theatrical-looking smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris), which develops a crest too. However, these males were quite well-dotted and as highly coloured as they could be, and were fancy enough for the female palmate newts they had met. You can see some fetching red-lined eyes here.

Slipping back towards the pond_note the red eye liner_Rowena Millar

Slipping back towards the pond-note the red eye liner

Breeding time had clearly reached a midsummer peak in our pond, although newts have been visible in the water since February/March, so it’s quite a long season. On this occasion I scooped only adults rather than the younger newts (still with visible gills) that I usually see hanging around under the surface. They are usually suspended motionless in the water until disturbed, at which point they swim away to safety as quickly as small fish, and with the same sort of side-to-side tail movement as a fish, too.

Newt well camouflaged in a puddle in woodland, east Cornwall_Rowena Millar

Newt well camouflaged in a puddle in woodland, east Cornwall_Rowena Millar

Pheremones, dancing and eggs

In springtime, palmate newts emerge from hiding places around the garden (or if available, the bog vegetation, damp acid moorland, wet acid heathland or wet woodland that make up their natural habitat).

In Cornwall, where the palmate newt is our exclusive newt, any specimen seen in any place is almost certain to be this species. If you visit Ireland, or much of central England, you are almost certain not to see a palmate newt. However, there are compensations: I saw some fantastic large great crested newts in urban Oxford many years ago, in a modest pond in the small, overgrown garden behind a house that had been converted into our Wildlife Trust offices.

Smooth newts, the most common species throughout most of Britain, look much like palmate newts (especially the females, and males outside the breeding season), but they have spottier throats. Male palmate newts may have less showy crests than the other British species, but they do have an extra filament at the tip of the tail during the breeding season and also webbed toes, so that their feet look like delicate little hands (hence palmate, from the palm of the hand).

Palmate newt showing spotty underside_Rowena Millar

Palmate newt showing spotty underside_Rowena Millar

Following hibernation, the newly emerged newts hunt small creatures such as frog tadpoles and invertebrates and head towards shallow ponds – the venues of their annual courtship rituals. With natural habitats diminished, isolated and fragmented by human infrastructure (roads, buildings, cultivated fields and boundaries), every garden pond is a lifeline for the species.

A courtship dance, performed by the male and resulting in the female following him around, involves much rippled waving of the male’s tail, which is curved forward to one side. This wafts powerful pheromones towards the female. The enticing scents are thought to stimulate her mating response, in which she encourages him to deposit a package of sperm onto a suitable place such as a leaf. She is then able to pick it up with her cloaca (also the word for a bird’s reproductive opening).

Each fertilised egg is held within a transparent jelly-like capsule that’s around 3mm across, so it’s relatively easy for us to see without any magnification. It’s not often noticed, though, as it’s folded into a leaf or attached to an underwater plant stem for safety. The female newt lays a few single eggs each day until up to 300 eggs have been attached to aquatic plants. This is a very good reason to ensure your pond is well planted with native pond plants, as an empty, bare pond will be lacking in weedy places where newt eggs can be stashed.

Young and growing newts

The newly emerged, pale-brown palmate newt larva is a little larger than its smooth newt counterpart, which hatches a day or two later. Apparently, palmate newts venture out onto land at an earlier age, however – around nine weeks after leaving the egg. Some remain underwater for an extra year before developing into adults. A young, aquatic newt is not too large to escape being preyed upon by voracious water beetles, dragonfly nymphs, fish, and even larger newts.

Young newts are easy to tell apart from frog or toad tadpoles, as they are less rounded (more newt-shaped, basically), with impressive feathery gills sticking out sideways on each side of the neck. They grow their front legs first, unlike frogs and toads, and are usually known as efts rather than tadpoles. It might take them a couple of years to reach sexual maturity, during which time they will absorb their gills and wander around on land, especially at night.

Young newt with gills_Rowena Millar

Young newt with gills_Rowena Millar

They need a damp garden with many hiding places, as they are preyed upon by other creatures such as grass snakes and birds (especially those that might grab a fish, like ducks, herons and kingfishers). Mammals such as cats and hedgehogs might perhaps be interested in catching them, too. Their main line of defense is to keep still, which makes ‘untidy’ hiding places in the garden with plenty of vegetation particularly important for their survival.

Our pond with its protective covering of duckweed_Rowena Millar

Our pond with its protective covering of duckweed_Rowena Millar

Hibernation and hiding places

Although the young hide out in weedy ponds, once they emerge during the summer, they need sheltered, wild areas on land where they can forage for invertebrates and also hibernate, as winter approaches.

Newts like to hibernate under logs, pieces of bark, under rocks or in deep leaf litter. From late summer through to early spring, this is where they are likely to be found. Palmate newts are protected by law and should not be harmed or traded, so please be very careful when gardening so as not to inadvertently prong them, tread on them or dig them up. Quiet corners are much appreciated by newts and other wildlife too, resulting in a healthier garden with a balance of prey and predators. It’s a lovely surprise to come across a wandering newt when you are least expecting it. An earlier blog mentions how one turned up in a pet snail’s aquarium upstairs in our daughter’s bedroom …