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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!