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Identifying the Amphibians You See

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 23 Sep 2017 | comments*Discuss
Frogs Toads Newts Amphibians Wildlife

Although amphibian numbers around Britain appear to be declining overall, these delicate and fascinating creatures are being encountered with increasing frequency in gardens. Whether this is a response to the loss of their natural habitat, or the inevitable consequence of creeping urbanisation – or both – it provides the wildlife gardener with a great opportunity to get ‘up close and personal’ with some of the UK’s most fragile fauna.

There’s no substitute for a good guide book, of course, but by the time you’ve flicked through all the pictures to find the beast in front of you, it’s probably long since hopped, waddled or swum away, often leaving you none the wiser. To help make amphibian identification a little easier, here’s our quick guide to the ones you’re most likely to come across – their appearance, habits and distinguishing features.

First our tail-less friends, the frogs and toads.

Common Frog

Rana temporaria, the common frog – or ‘grass’ frog, as it is more widely known outside Britain – is one of the great success stories of wildlife gardening, spawning in many back garden ponds as ever more of its traditional breeding sites have been lost from the countryside.

  • Appearance: A very typical frog shape, with the long legs, bulbous eyes and smooth skin that you’d expect.
  • Colour: A variable species, it ranges from light brown to dark olive green, often with dark blotches along its back; its sides are usually mottled and underneath it is generally light – white or pale yellow – though darker, speckled and even orange bellies are not unknown.
  • Size: Can be up to 4 inches (10cm) when fully grown, but usually smaller.
  • Most likely to be found: In the pond during the breeding season, otherwise in moist, hidden areas of the garden.
  • Distinguishing features: Smooth moist skin; leaps well and far when alarmed.
  • Most likely to be confused with: Possibly a toad, but the differences are very obvious.

Common Toad

The common toad (Bufo bufo) is less keen on garden ponds for breeding, having a much stronger pull to traditional spawning sites than its froggy cousin, and in any case, few gardens have ponds that offer the deeper water that this species prefers. If your garden does host a toad or two outside the breeding season, count yourself lucky as there’s almost certainly no better pest-munching friend.

  • Appearance: A big, robust-looking amphibian, with a typically warty skin; a large and obvious swelling – the paratoid gland – behind each copper coloured or golden eye.
  • Colour: Tends to be a uniform colour, with no obvious patterning; a shade of greyish brown is typical, though sandy, brick-red and dark olive animals are not unknown.
  • Size: Up to 6 inches (15cm), but again, most are smaller than this.
  • Most likely to be found: Hides by day, so it may be encountered hiding under rocks or in old pots while gardening. Less demanding of damp conditions than frogs, but may occasionally be seen in the garden pond.
  • Distinguishing features: Dry, ‘warty’ skin (and no, the Old Wives’ Tale about catching warts from them isn’t true, just in case you were wondering!). Toads normally walk, but will make lumbering hops if surprised.
  • Most likely to be confused with: A frog, but the toad is a larger and altogether more chunky animal.

The Newts

Newts are most likely to be encountered in your pond, during the spring, when they take up permanent residence in the water for the duration of the breeding season. The males develop distinctive crests and colours at this time, which makes them particularly easy to identify; for the rest of the year, their nocturnal and secretive habits makes them very unlikely to be seen, though they can sometimes be found hiding under logs or flat stones.

Smooth Newt

  • Appearance: Also called the Common Newt, Triturus vulgaris is a delicate animal, with a smooth, velvety skin.
  • Colour: Typically a brown or olive body, often with a dark stripe on the side of its head; the underside is dark yellow or orange with many dark spots.
  • Size: Can be 4 inches (10cm) long, but is usually smaller
  • Distinguishing features: The males develop an undulating, finely ‘saw-toothed’ crest from shoulder to near the tip of their tails during the breeding season.
  • Most likely to be confused with: Palmate newt (see below) particularly out of the breeding season, but generally the Smooth Newt’s belly is much more orange and has more and larger dark spots.

Palmate Newt

  • Appearance: Triturus helveticus is a very dainty, smooth-skinned newt.
  • Colour: Olive or brown on the body, with a pale yellow belly.
  • Size: Usually under 3.5 inches (9cm) long.
  • Distinguishing features: The crest on breeding males is very low and hardly noticeable along their bodies, but the give-away is the thin filament at the tip of their tails.
  • Most likely to be confused with: Smooth Newt, but the paler belly of the Palmate and the lack of spots on it usually makes identification easy.
If, however, you should happen to come across a large, blackish, warty-skinned newt, some 6 inches (15cm) or so long and sporting the most extravagantly spiky crest, you should count yourself very lucky – and then make sure you leave him, and any of his ladies, well alone. He’s a Great Crested – or Warty – Newt (Triturus cristatus) – and one of Britain’s protected species!

Once you’ve looked carefully at a few amphibians, spotting the tell-tale features starts to become automatic and you’ll soon be identifying them all on sight. You can always check with that guide book later, taking your time over it once you’re back in the warm, and suitably armed with a cup of coffee. Happy hunting!

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could you please identify what I saw it was newt/lizard type 2inches long with visible head worm likethicknessvery bright green and had come up the plug hole in the sink
whitetheterry - 23-Sep-17 @ 9:05 AM
@Froggirl. Give it a while. If it doesn't happen now, you may find some activity in early spring.
Kiss Kiss - 20-Aug-15 @ 12:17 PM
I just recently made a frog pond. How long does it take for some creatures to take notice and hop in?
Frog Girl - 19-Aug-15 @ 4:47 PM
Hi we have about 16 newts in our pond, 15 now. 1 has died should I leave it or let it decompose for other wildlife in the pond?
Jo - 15-Jun-15 @ 2:58 PM
There has usually been a frog presence in my butlers sink in the garden .However I am concerned that there are none this year. I haven't noticed frogspawn. I try and protect the 'pond' withsmall holly type bushes and a metal type grid and green mesh stretched over an old fridge shelf laid halfway across the 'pond' as there are neighbours cats that wander in and out of my garden. I popped my hand in the water and usually bring out a frog of some size but there are none.Cant do much more really. What do you think?
SARAH - 4-May-15 @ 10:05 AM
I have a pond with fish, water runs thru filters into header tank then back down stream into pond.I did have string weed until snails seem to have eaten it is this possible and if so how to stop snails as fish need string weed for winter warmth and food.
tre - 2-Sep-12 @ 7:12 PM
hi. Yesterday we found about 6 slug-like green creatures about 8 cms long all huddled together under a plastic plant tub. The soil under the tub was very moist and the creatures looked as though they were asleep or hibernating. This was during the day, at about 4 o'clock. They appeared to be completely green with rather frog-like markings, with smooth, shiny skin. They were like very fat worms, about 1.5 cms in diameter. Could you please tell us what you think they may be?
dottybee - 6-Apr-12 @ 8:31 PM
Hello. My son found a lizard or newt in our garden in 2009. There are now at least seven of various pattern and colour. Bellies are orange with dark spots, no spots on upper body. Some have a thin orange line down the back. We have no water in the garden or nearby so they live entirely in holes at the bottom of a wall, ranging through the lawn margins between April and october. Will these be newts or lizards. Largest is about 7 cm. They have skin not scaly but also not really smooth either. None have frills up and down on tails, rather of a round section. They don't look like the pictures of smooth newts or common lizards that I have seen.I can supply pictures if possible through this site..
Paul - 10-Dec-11 @ 7:23 PM
hi.we discovered three frogs in our small london garden.don't really have space for a proper pond (and have small children) so put out a large metal tub of water, which they voluntarily hopped in and have been there ever since (several months).They can get in and out as I sometimes see them in the garden nearby, but most of the time they are just sitting/floating in the tub.We love having them but I am worried about their long-term prospects....what can we do to help them? thanks
maidmarion - 21-May-11 @ 2:41 PM
We have just laid a new pond lining, found 2 newts one male one female, the male died over night, but the female seivived, to our surprise we now have 2 males and 2 females! where have they come from? there are stones leading to the reedy area, but also a great deal of activity in and arounf a pile of stones on the filter,what is the best way to ensure there survival,and what can they eat as there is not much sediment on the bottom of the pond yet. we also have a frog somewhere in the small read bed. thankyou Rosie
ROSIE INGLIS - 16-May-11 @ 9:29 PM
Hi...I have some little creatures swimming around in my pond, but I do not know what they are, I have frogs and newts, but these have just appeared, they are arounf 1 cm long and black in colour.......to me they look like leaches, can you identify them?.... Maqnay thanks Tracey
Shrek22 - 21-Apr-11 @ 5:56 PM
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