THE PALMATE NEWT Lissotriton helveticus is the smallest of our three British newts, measuring 8 – 9 cm from nose to tail. They are found throughout Britain, on heaths and moors, in ponds and ditches in woodland and grassland, and sometimes garden ponds, preferring slightly acidic shallow ponds for breeding.
Newts have long, slender bodies and are frequently mistaken for lizards. If you are lucky enough to get close to one, you should see it has 4 clawless toes on its front feet, whereas lizards have 5 toes with long claws. If it scurries off too quickly to let you count its toes, it’s probably a lizard!
Male palmate newts are olive-brown with patches of darker colours and well-defined dark spots; during the breeding season (February to July) they develop a low crest along their back, a thin hair-like filament at the end of their tail and fringed webbing between the toes of their back feet, (which look like dark gloves, hence the name ‘palmate’ newt). Females are larger, yellowish or olive-brown, with dark speckling and can be difficult to tell apart from the females of the smooth newt. However, the throat of the palmate newt is plain pink or orange, whereas the smooth newt is spotted. Both sexes have orange bellies.
Palmate newts usually hibernate on land in dense leaf litter, log piles or compost heaps, but some young adults hibernate in the mud of their breeding ponds. They emerge during February and courtship and breeding takes place at a suitable pond from March to June. The elaborate courtship display is fascinating to see: the male swims ahead of the female, fanning his tail vigorously and displaying his crest, all the time wafting scent pheromones towards her. If she is suitably impressed he deposits a parcel of sperm which she takes up to fertilise her eggs. She carefully lays a few of her 200-300 eggs every day on aquatic plants over a few weeks. When the newt tadpoles or ‘efts’ emerge they have a fringe of external gills on the back of their head. They take a couple of months to metamorphose to air-breathing juveniles and spend a couple more on land before hibernating. After breeding, the males absorb their wavy crests and tail filaments.
Whilst on land palmate newts eat small invertebrates (insects, worms, snails, slugs), often flicking out their tongue to catch their prey. In water they eat water snails, frog tadpoles and the larvae of invertebrates such as dragonflies and mayflies, catching their prey in their teeth. They are quite tolerant of dry conditions and can stray a long way from water outside the breeding season.
Adult palmates are taken by fish, great crested newts and water-birds such as herons, ducks and kingfishers. Efts can be eaten by larger newts, frogs, toads and larger dragonfly and beetle larvae. To make your garden pond attractive to palmate newts, provide plenty of native aquatic vegetation for egg-laying and suitable shelter and hibernation sites by having rockeries, log piles or a compost heap, and don’t stock it with fish!
- Newts are silent in contrast to frogs and toads.
- Of all amphibians, newts most closely resemble the earliest fossil amphibians, the earliest animals to have adapted to life on land.
- Many species of newt have poison glands in their skin for protection from predators.
- Newts have impressive regeneration capabilities; they can re-grow limbs if they are amputated, repair their heart tissue if it becomes damaged and re-grow their retinas!
Fiona Haynes: SWT Ranger (South Team)