Originally published July 2011
Hello everyone! Students of the Gaia Hypothesis are well aquainted with the theory of homeostasis, the idea that we inhabit a self-regulating system in which the pendulum does not take too long to start swinging in the opposite direction. This sudden penchant for all things philosophical has come about from the fact that following last month’s ramblings on the effects of drought on our local flora, there have been very few days recently in which I have not walked outside and been soaked to the skin!
A stroll through our little reserve will show just how resiliant Ma Nature is to the foibles of our good old British weather. Those plants that did not undergo actual dessication in the dry spell are now looking decidedly chipper! The undergrowth is green and luxuriant and the canopy is full of large healthy leaves alive with the soughing of our seemingly perpetual breeze. The cracks in the earth have disappeared and our pond is now looking less like a large glutinous puddle and more like a decent habitat for any self-respecting aquatic fauna. This leads us seamlessly to our ‘show of hands’ moment! What connects the Greek Water God, the seventh largest moon in our solar system, a cannibalised cafe-racer motor bike of the 1960s and ’70s and three of our native amphibians? The answer is all in the name, Triton, son of Poseidon and father of the Tritons or mer-people. The aquatic theme is continued in the nomenclature of the largest moon orbiting the planet Neptune (Triton) and the three amphibians in question, the Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris), the Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus) and of course the larger and rarer Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus).
The Smooth Newt, our most common species, is similar to its Palmate relative and can grow up to 10 centimetres in length. Identification between the two can be problematic especially between the females who don’t transform themselves for the purpose of wooing in the Spring. Great Crested Newts pose no such difficulties being bigger, very dark in colour, and have bright yellow or orange bellies with black markings. The males, as the name suggests, grow magnificent toothy crests in the breeding season. The best time for newt watching is Spring and early Summer as they perform their elaborate courtship ritual. The male, gaudily attired in brightly-coloured nuptial dress, chases after a female at break-neck speed through the water. Once he has manoeuvered himself in front of her and has her full attention he fans his tail towards her and prances around in a manner common to every love-struck male of any species! The end result is that the female lays a few hundred eggs; every one individually wrapped in a tiny leaf parcel.
Newt tadpoles, known as Efts, differ from frog ‘poles in that their forelegs develop first. A week or so of life is sufficient for them to hone their hunting skills and their tiny teeth make short work of the small aquatic organisms, especially Daphnia (Water Fleas), that make up their diet. As adults their carniverous tastes lead them to become increasingly ambitious and it is common to see newts wrestling with earthworms twice their size before finally admitting defeat. Adult newts spend surprisingly little time in water, often only returning to breed. Given the temporary nature of many woodland ponds (Quarry Wood being the perfect example!) this is an admirable evolutionary trait. Most newts will return to land after breeding and will overwinter underground or in any damp places where they lie, in a torpid state, curled up like little jellied shrimps. On land they fall prey to just about anything that spots them, especially the beady-eyed Heron and snuffling Hedgehogs. Grass Snakes too will take their toll on newt populations, both in and out of the water. Clearly the lives of these fabulous little beasties are fraught with danger from egg to adult. In an effort to prevent Homo sapiens sp. from adding to their problems they are given the legislative protection afforded to all amphibia in this country. As such it is illegal for anyone to sell, barter or hire any specimens without a licence. The Great Crested Newt has been given special protection which covers both the animal itself and its habitat.
This is all well and good I hear you cry, but what about the cafe-racer of yesteryear? Well, bikers of a certain age will no doubt remember the Triton; a cunning combination of a Triumph engine and Norton frame. This does not have even the slightest connection to amphibians; although, on reflection, given our present Summer weather…! So there we have it, a very brief summary of the life of a very under-stated aquatic national treasure. These days the UK abounds with amphibia interest groups and societies, all of which do sterling work. However, I leave it to one Bertram Wilberforce Wooster to describe, in his own words, one of the founding fathers of the movement.
“Though never for an instant faltering in my opinion that Augustus Fink-Nottle was Nature’s final word in cloth-headed guffins, I liked the man, wished him well.”
“Tuppy, old man, the Bassett’s going to marry Gussie Fink-Nottle.”
“Tough luck on both of them, what?”
“She loves this newt-nuzzling blister.”
Right Ho Jeeves, (P. G. Wodehouse 1934)
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Image 2: Common/Smooth Newt by Natalie Bowers, used under Creative Commons License 2.0 / Image 3: P1630165 [Palmate newt] by Xavier Bejar, used under CC2.0 / Image 4: Triturus cristatus [Great crested newt] by Alexandre Roux, used under CC2.0