Fantastic Newts and How to Find Them

So far my job as an ecological surveyor for the summer has solely involved monitoring of greater crested newts (GCNs), otherwise known as stumbling around ponds in the dark.

Not that Newt

Newts are a type of salamander, and there are three species in the UK – smooth, palmate, and crested. GCNs are a European Protected Species, which is why surveys and monitoring have to be carried out at any ponds which may contain newts within a 500m radius of development.

Female GCN

Ponds have to be surveyed six times over the newt breeding season (April-June), using three separate methods each time. These methods can include torch surveying, bottle trapping, egg searches, netting, and e-DNA, but so far I have exclusively used the first three.

GCN by torchlight

Torch surveying is carried out after sunset by shining a pretty impressive torch into the pond and looking for newts. At first I thought this would be really challenging and was worried about telling GCNs from other newt species, but it turns out it’s pretty easy (they’re a lot bigger). The biggest challenge is not getting distracted by other interesting beasties in the pond!

“Small” newts

Once the torching is done, we can put in the bottle traps. These are made by cutting the top off a plastic bottle, inserting it as a funnel, and impaling the whole thing at an angle on a bamboo cane (ecologist arts and crafts, and definitely no Stanley knife accidents are involved). The traps are submerged to the point where there is still an air bubble at the top of them.

And then it’s time to go to bed! (Generally in some random pub/B&B.)

Male GCN

The traps can’t be in for longer than 12 hours for animal welfare reasons, so it’s an early-ish start in the morning to see what we’ve caught. So far this has included newts of all three species, various bizarre invertebrates (dragonfly nymphs, water scorpions, diving beetles and their terrifying larvae), tadpoles, and sticklebacks. Everything is released unharmed after what must be a very confusing night, and we scan the vegetation for newt eggs.

Newts fold their eggs into leaves, so really we’re scanning any broad-leaved plants for quite obvious folds. GCN eggs are larger and paler than eggs of the other two species. As we don’t want to damage recruitment too much, once we have recorded one egg in the pond we stop looking, since that’s enough information to classify it as a breeding pond for the season.

We’re about four visits into six of a large site with about thirty ponds in five different groups. I know the site pretty well now and it’s a lot more efficient than it was at the beginning. There’s a lot of tripping over brambles, getting scratched to bits, and (almost, but not quite yet) falling into ponds involved, all of which is great. It’s tiring but brilliant to be working outside and doing some biology.

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