The last time I created a post of this nature I received some very positive feedback and as such I thought I would proceed with another. Last time I touched up on the subtle differences between Britain’s common Vole species (article found here), species that can prove rather tricky to amateur nature enthusiasts. On this occasion I have decided to a touch upon another potentially troubling group, Newts.
Of Britain’s four species of Newt, one of which, the Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) is fairly easy to identify, even to those with only a minimal interest in ecology. Reaching lengths of up to 17cm these newts are large and somewhat striking whereas our other species are on the large part, rather small and dull. At least outside of the breeding season in which most newts take to land and most human/amphibian encounters occur. Baring this in mind, for the purpose of this blog post I will be omitting the Great Crested Newt from the proceedings, as well as the similar (and invasive) Italian Crested Newt (Triturus carnifex). Instead I will focus on the three species likely to cause confusion and yes, I did say three species! Contrary to popular belief Britain is actually home to a third small newt species as opposed to two widely discussed, native species. I am of course referring to the Alpine Newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris), a new arrival to our shores that now coexists with our native Smooth (Lissotriton vulgaris) and Palmate Newts (Lissotriton helveticus) in many areas. Just when you thought things were simple right? So here we go, a brief guide to Britain’s three species of small, brown, unobtrusive newt. Species that unless you’re an ecologist, naturalist or famed amphibian wrangler have the potential to cause a great deal of confusion and frustration.
Smooth Newt – John Beniston
Distribution & Habitat Preference
First thing first, habitat preference and distribution are by no means reliable factors when it comes to identifying the small brown newt lurking around amid your marigolds. Yes distribution maps can be used to narrow down the list, particular when it comes to the non-native Alpine Newt but aesthetic features are the only way to make a solid ID in the vast majority of cases. All three newt species share somewhat similar habitat preferences and all have the potential to turn up in garden ponds. It is however thought that Palmate Newts favour shallow, acidic waters such as those present on heaths and farmland whilst Smooth Newts are far less particular. Alpine Newts are likewise far from fussy and one must remember that all three species will travel quite some distance from water once the breeding season has been and gone.
As with habitat preference, distribution is fairly unreliable though there do appear to be a few trends that could aid in the identification process. For example; Smooth Newts are the only species to be found in Ireland and Alpine Newts are thought to only persist in certain areas including Kent, East Surrey, South-East London, Birmingham, Shropshire, Sunderland and Central Scotland. I have personally found Alpine Newts in the vicinity of Penrith, Cumbria however thus distribution estimates for this species at least are dubious at best, particularly given the number of newts kept in captivity these days. For Palmate and Smooth Newts the situation is a little more complicated with both species common and widespread across the majority of Britain. The ARC Trust have however created a series of interesting distribution maps for these species based on reports of both Smooth and Palmate Newts. These maps can be used to show whether either species is common or scarce in an area but are somewhat less useful for localised trends. Still, they are a useful resource and as such I have included them below.
Please note; on both distribution maps the dark green colour represents an area where the species has been recently recorded in most 10km survey squares. Light green however reflects areas where there have been few recent records.
Smooth Newt Distribution – ARC Trust
Palmate Newt Distribution – ARC Trust
Dressed to Impress
Inside of the breeding season male newts become much, much easier to identify and thus this is where I shall begin. If you know a place where you can safely observe breeding newts (without disturbing them) I would advice you all to do so as all three of our smaller newts are a sight to behold in spring. As I said before, this is a time where male newts are particularly easy to identify if you take note of the following factors. The crest (or lack of) is always the easiest way to identify male newts at this time of year. Smooth Newts boast a long, wavy crest that spans the length of their body, from the head to the tip of the tale. In contrast the crest of the Palmate Newt exists only over its tail, ending in a filament absent the much more impressively dressed Smooth Newt. Male Palmate Newts also develop webbed hind feet during the breeding season. As for our alien Alpine Newts, it impossible to mistake a breeding male with either of the other species. Breeding male Alpine Newts showcase a vivid, yellow and black crest which dare I say looks substantially more appealing that than those of our two native species. I am not allowed to say that though am I? Invasive species and all.
Sadly, the joys of the breeding season are short lived when it comes to newts and the crests that allow easy differentiation between male specimens promptly disappear once spring is over. When this occurs male newts rapidly relapse into a much duller, brown visage and alongside the invariably uninspiring females can pose a real conundrum for those looking to identify them. With a little perseverance however there are ways to differentiate between our three smaller newts during their terrestrial stage, one must simply know where to look. When it comes to all three newts, the best place to start is the throat..
Smooth Newts as a rule have spotted throats, showcasing dark spots on a usually white or “cream” pallet. In contrast the throat of the Palmate Newt is pink, at times appearing translucent. This is my far the most obvious aid when it comes to choosing between Palmate and Smooth newts. In addition, the throat and chin of the Alpine Newt should appear orange and should show no visible spots. There are however other factors that can help in the identification process. For example; Palmate newts often showcase a dark eyestripe whereas both Smooth and Alpine Newts lack one. I must confess however that I have always identified my garden newts via their throat and am unfamiliar with many other means. As such I will stick with what I know and stop here. White with black spots? Smooth Newt. Pink or “see through”, Palmate. Orange and unspotted, Alpine. Easy peasy!
Alpine Newts can appear somewhat larger than both Smooth and Palmate Newts though not to the extent of the Great Crested and thus ID can sometimes be difficult. These hardy newts can be identified using a number of factors (including those mentioned above) though as rule the most prominent things to look out for are a marbled dark grey and brown back and a orange, unspotted underside. Smooth Newts too showcase an orange underside but should also show a series of dark spots.
Alpine Newt – James Common
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James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.