Smooth newt

Sometimes confused with Lizards because of their similar body shapes, newts are amphibious so require different habitat characteristics and provisions. There are three native British newt species, but to the untrained eye it can be difficult to tell them apart.

Male Smooth Newt (Triturus vulgaris), picture ...

Image via Wikipedia

Identification

The Smooth Newt will range in length from 10-11cm when fully grown, their long tails often accounting for half of this measurement, with males slightly larger than females. For most of the year both sexes are very similar in appearance, it is during the breeding season when they develop vivid markings and features that they are more distinguishable.

Their skin is velvety in appearance rather than scaled like a lizard. Females are a light brown colour, with two faint black lines running parallel to one another along the back. Males are anything from olive green to tan with a single faint dark line along the spine; both are well camouflaged when hidden amongst piles of logs and leaves. Adults have black spotted, yellow or orange coloured undersides which become brighter, almost pink, in breeding males.

During the breeding season which generally starts in March and ends in May the male Smooth newt is noticeably darker and sports a distinct wavy crest which runs from the head to the tip of the tale. Both males and females develop spots on the back and sides during this time. A Smooth Newt can be told apart from a Palmate Newt, which is a very similar species, by the presence of dark spots on the underside of the throat.

Overview

This amphibian is the most common of the three native newt species to be found in the British Isles, and the only one occurring naturally in Ireland. Eggs are laid in water and a Newts offspring are small and legless, all characteristics akin to other amphibians we are likely to encounter in the garden such as the Common Frog.

Adults emerge from their winter hibernation in late February if the weather is mild but usually wait until March. At this stage the breeding season begins, with adult newts entering and then rarely leaving the pond. In a display of physical prowess males shake and vibrate their tails in front of the female in an effort to impress. Once fertilisation has occurred the female will lay up to 12 eggs per day, she lays these onto an underwater leaf then folds it over, taking time to carefully wrap these leafy parcels.

Newt tadpoles are born after two or three weeks and resemble small fish, from this early stage they are carnivorous, feeding on plankton at first, but taking small aquatic insects and larvae as they grow. They can be identified from tadpoles of Frogs and Toads because they develop front legs before back legs and can also be recognised by their wavy feathery gills which grow out from their heads enabling them to breathe underwater. These gills slowly disappear as their lungs start to form.

Usually newts emerge from the water after ten weeks, by which time they should resemble miniature versions of the adults. A young newt in this stage of life is known as an Eft. However if poor conditions have restricted their development and they haven’t grown fast enough they will spend the winter in the pond and emerge as an Eft the following spring.

In July the adults exit the water but do not stray far, preferring to hunt close to the breeding sites, searching for meals of small insects, worms and spiders amongst the leaf litter, log piles and rockeries. At this time in their life cycle they begin to lose the vivid colourations and wavy crests associated with the breeding season. In late September they start readying themselves for another six months of hibernation.

Smooth Newt (Triturus vulgaris); female specim...

Image via Wikipedia

During the breeding season newts can often be spotted lying motionless just below the surface of the water. If you provide the right conditions for them it will be possible to observe them on land throughout other periods of the year as well.

In the Garden

Young newts will go in search of new habitats and territories depending on the availability of food resources near their birth pond. If you have a small garden pond which is yet to be colonised by newts, by keeping the water clean, providing some vegetation and bank side log piles you can make it appear very appealing to a young wandering newt. Logs provide newts with their favourite hideaways because they create a damp habitat with plentiful supplies of insects for them to feast on. By carefully rolling back a log next to a pond you are likely to find a newt or two resting up beneath. It is very important to replace the log with great care so that you do not squash these delicate creatures. During the winter they will be tucked away trying to keep warm so it is better not to go in search of them at this time of year.

Did you know?

  • Adult Smooth Newts shed their skin once a week.
  • Apparently Smooth Newts become excited and aggressive at the sight of other newts feeding.
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