The smallest British amphibian, the palmate newt (Triturus helveticus) earns its English name from the strongly webbed hind feet that males develop during the breeding season (4). Both sexes have smooth skin, with olive green or brownish coloured upperparts and a yellow belly featuring a scattering of small black spots. The throat is not spotted and is pinkish in colour (2). Males are slightly smaller than females and have a 'boxy' appearance as a result of two ridges that pass along the back. In addition to the webbed feet, they also develop a very low, smooth crest during the breeding season, which extends along the back to the tail, where it forms a deep 'fin' (3). The tail has an orange central line passing along its length, bordered by two rows of dark blotches (2). Female palmate newts are easily confused with those of smooth newts (Triturus vulgaris), but the unspotted pink throat is a good distinguishing feature (3). The larvae of smooth and palmate newts are extremely difficult to tell apart from each other (3).
Palmate newts are very similar in general habits and behaviour to smooth newts. They are crepuscular, with activity peaking at dusk and dawn. This secretive newt (2) spends most of the day in thick aquatic vegetation, coming out into open water only after dark (3). Their diet is very broad, and includes zooplankton, freshwater shrimps and hoglice; when they are on land they eat a wide range of invertebrates, the capture of which is aided by the possession of a sticky tongue (3).
With a western European distribution, the palmate newt is found from northern Germany through France to the north of Portugal and Spain. In Britain it has a widespread but rather patchy distribution. It is rare or completely absent from the Midlands, East Anglia, and parts of southern England and is most common in Wales and Scotland (3).
The palmate newt breeds in a range of still and occasionally running water, including ponds, puddles, woodland and heath pools and even mountain lake edges (2). It shows a marked preference for shallow soft-water pools on acid soils, which explains why the species is common on heathland in the south and west of England, and in moorland and bogs in the north (5). Ponds and ditches that do not support fish are preferred, and it is often found in garden ponds (3). All amphibians require good quality undisturbed terrestrial habitats around the breeding ponds (3).
Although the palmate newt is not threatened at present, there has been a dramatic and worrying global decline in amphibians. In Britain, widespread species, including the palmate newt have declined. It is thought that changes in agriculture are largely to blame, including the massive reduction in the number of farm ponds. In the last century, a staggering 70 percent of Britain's pools and marshes have been destroyed. Furthermore, remaining ponds are often polluted with agricultural chemicals (3).
Although the palmate newt isn't threatened with extinction at present, the long-term survival of all Britain's native amphibians and reptiles remains in the balance (3). Interest in reptiles and amphibians has increased massively in the last 30 years and there are now conservation charities dedicated to these fascinating and often overlooked species, such as the Herpetological Conservation Trust (5). The ecology and habits of this species are well understood, and effective monitoring is in place, which will enable the state of the palmate newt population to be tracked carefully. Any decline will therefore be apparent and informed conservation action can swing into action. Although sale of this newt is prohibited under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, it is unfortunate that the species is not yet fully protected by law in Britain (3).
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