GUDDLING around in ponds and ditches for newts is one of my most enduring memories of childhood and it is a fascination that still holds true for my son and his friends, some of whom are much more adept at catching these interesting little amphibians than I ever was.
Old habits die hard though, and it is still a bit of a party trick of mine when out walking with friends to roll up my trousers and wade into some small pool only to emerge triumphant with a squirming newt in my cupped hands.
I am sure that part of this innate fascination for newts amongst boys – and for men who haven’t yet grown-up – lies in their secretive behaviour. They are not at all obvious compared to their amphibian cousins, the frog and toad, and to see a newt you really do have to be patient and look hard.
From historical times the rather mysterious nature of the newt is perhaps best remembered in the famous incantation of the Three Witches as they stir the boiling cauldron in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog ...” Indeed, in the past it is entirely possible that newts held such bewitching qualities because of their ability to regrow toes, or even complete legs, that had become lost or damaged.
Despite their small size, newts are quite voracious predators, seeking out a range of prey that includes damselflies and frog tadpoles. An excellent way of detecting their presence is to wait until it is dark and shine a torch into a pond. If they are about it won’t be long before their lizard-like forms are seen wriggling amongst the pondweed. Sunny days are also ideal as newts like to lie in shallow water at such times so as to benefit from the warmth.
Occasionally, it is possible to witness the rather elaborate underwater courtship display, which in some ways is a bit like a dance as the male tries to attract the female by darting in front of her and vibrating his tail. As he entices her forward, miniscule capsules of sperm (spermatophores) are deposited, which she then picks up for internal fertilisation. Instead of laying a mass of spawn like a frog, the female newt lays each egg individually, often wrapping them around the leaves of underwater plants. It is an intricate and time consuming job, but the packaged eggs offer some protection from predators.
One species, the palmate newt, is common in many parts of Scotland and occurs in the smallest of pools, especially in upland areas. The cold, hilly spots where this species is frequently found mean a large number of juveniles don’t fully metamorphose into miniature four-legged newts during their first summer, and many over-winter as frilly-gilled tadpoles before emerging the following year. I’ve often found these half-grown tadpoles in tiny peaty pools in early spring on the high ground of the Cairngorms.
The other species most likely to be encountered is the smooth newt. In the breeding season the male is very handsome, with his mottled blue-grey back and orange underparts. The smooth newt has a localised distribution in low-lying areas of Scotland and I have always found it much scarcer in comparison to the palmate newt. As a youngster growing up in Edinburgh, some of the best places to find smooth newts were in golf course ponds.
Our final and largest species is the great-crested newt, which is rare and has a very patchy distribution. It is the most striking of our newts, especially the male with his long serrated crest, and because of its protected status is probably best known as being the bane of housing developer’s lives when construction work has to be postponed if a breeding colony is detected on a building site.
After breeding, the adult newts leave the water and spend the rest of their time on land, hardly ever seen because of their habit of hiding under stones and logs during the day and emerging on damp nights to feed on invertebrates.
Last summer I found an adult palmate newt on my garden lawn, the first time I had ever found one during this land- living stage of their annual cycle.
It was a purely chance discovery and it did make me wonder how many other interesting creatures are continually around us, but which we rarely manage to see.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west