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Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Saturday Newt Fever

Great crested newts have always been rare in the south west: uncommon in Devon and believed absent from Cornwall; this may be to do with acidic soil conditions. But otherwise the UK hosts an important and sizeable proportion of the European population, which has declined massively in the last 100 years. 

Let the survey begin
Formerly there were perhaps around a dozen known sites for Devon, a few with current populations, some old historical records of uncertain status, occasional tantalising reports of possible new sites, anecdotes and rumours, and some informed guesswork as to potential new locations; the efforts of Devon Reptile & Amphibian Group have been instrumental in following these up. 

Hence the importance of regular monitoring, such as at a site just outside Exeter. Among several naturalistic ponds, the small shallow rectangular ornamental pond is perhaps not the one which immediately suggested promising Crestie habitat. But this was one of the best sites I've visited for viewing Great crested newts and their mating behaviour: the shallow central open area served as a watery dancefloor, under our disco torch light*.

You can tell by the way I move: tail flash 
As a wild night out, it did not disappoint. There were over 30 adults at this newty nightclub, males in best full-crested finery displaying to females, or engaged in dance-offs against other males. The male approaches the female for a sniff, then arches his back, supported on just his forelegs, called the 'cat buckle' stance. Then he beats his tail, leaning forward to waft pheromones towards her, sometimes rocking back and forth and lashing his tail. Similar, but more vigorous, versions of these moves are directed towards competing males, with occasional synchronised writhing S-shaped swimming and swishing white tail flashes. For recourse to the chill out zone, with their stripy jazz hands (jazz feet?) the newts would kick up a cloud of silt to hide within.
Jazz feet, kicking up a silt storm
It was difficult to tell whether this impressed the female newts or not, around the pond edges. Some were clearly gravid, bulging with eggs nearly ready to be laid. We also found a few of the characteristic large circular cream eggs within the folded over leaves of pond vegetation, and numerous much smaller smooth and palmate newts; the whole UK set.
Party dress: belly patterns are unique to individuals

We got home just as weekend revellers were making their way to the pubs and clubs of Exeter....

For some more info about Great crested newts,
Freshwater Habitats Trust 

* Please note a special licence is needed to search for Great crested newts, which includes using a torch and handling. Monitoring at this site is carried out by licensed surveyors.

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