Dave Kilbey Photography

Here be dragons

Posted by Dave Kilbey on Tuesday 10 January 2012 at 5:35pm

Even before toads have started moving, male great crested newts will be starting to make their way back to their breeding ponds

Perhaps due to Adrian Mole’s influence, having an interest in newts can feel like a taboo subject but these fascinating creatures deserve a more credible reputation.  For a start they are stunning looking animals and in early spring male great crested newts resemble small dragons exhibiting a prominent and deeply toothed crest down the centre of their back and tail.  Underneath both sexes have a dramatic fiery orange belly patterned with irregular black markings and they also possess charming, striped feet.

Adult male great crested newt in full breeding condition

Although quite distinct from our other two species; the smooth and palmate newt, all three have similar features and they share the same bright yellow - deep orange belly markings; a signal of their distastefulness or toxicity.

Adult male smooth newt showing orange underbelly

Adult male palmate newt coming into breeding condition

Also known as the “warty newt” great crested newts store relatively powerful toxins in small glands over their bodies.  A Victorian naturalist once took it upon herself to test the efficacy of these compounds by gently biting a newt, enough to stimulate a defensive reaction.  After several hours of facial numbness, foaming at the mouth and convulsions she concluded that they were more than effective enough for her liking….

Adult female great crested newt.  The “warts” are predominantly white and can be clearly seen here

When it comes to egg laying, female great crested newts employ a great deal of care.  Particular plants and leaves are chosen by sight and smell, with water forget-me-not being one of the most sought after plants.  Females carefully fold a leaf in half with their hind legs and deposit a single egg inside before clamping it shut for up to half an hour until the leaf and egg have formed a bond.

Eggs take about three weeks to hatch (depending on the water temperature) and the newly emerged larvae, known as efts, move to open areas of water where they drift in the water column feeding on minute zoo plankton.  This habit of preferring open water makes great crested newt larvae particularly vulnerable to fish predation and the two will not happily coexist.  It is known that great crested newts are able to detect the presence of fish in water bodies by smell and are therefore able to effectively avoid inappropriate water bodies.

Like all newt larvae, baby great crested newts possess obvious gills during the early stages of their life but these disappear as they develop and later metamorphose into miniature adult form.

Great crested newt eft or larva

Close up of eft showing prominant gills

Adult males will leave the pond any time from early spring onwards in search of additional, receptive females.  They lead a more nomadic and terrestrial existence than females who, preoccupied with egg laying, remain in the pond for many months.  Both adults and young newts predominately hibernate on land and will seek shelter in nooks and crannies close to the pond favouring log piles and compost heaps.

Adult male great crested newt going walkabout.  They look much less impressive and darker on land than in water


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