Newts in the Wildlife Garden

Pond in mid summer

The main Wildlife Garden pond in mid-summer © R Adams

At this time of year we start to prepare for our annual pond-clearing tasks which include pulling out some of the reeds along the pond margins and thinning water-lilies –  all to maintain our open water pond habitats.

In the meantime, volunteers Miles Äijälä, Rohit Bangay and Frances Dismore give an account of a very different pond activity in April this year:

“The great thing about the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum is the abundance of life that’s dwelling within it. So much of that life is found within its ponds and the Garden showcases a varied pond mosaic. The top pond has a waterfall and ford that drains into the main pond. This main pond is bordered by reeds (Phragmites australis) and other tall marginal plants including reed sweet-grass (Glyceria maxima), water-plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica), flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus) and purple loose-strife (Lythrum salicaria). There is a stream that flows down the chalk mound into the chalk pond which at times overflows into the main pond.

All three ponds vary in depth and size and these factors enable the ponds to support different plant communities. These in turn support a phenomenal diversity of aquatic invertebrates such as diving (Acillius sulcatus) and whirligig (Gyrinus sp.) beetles and those that have an aquatic larval stage such as mayflies (Cloeon spp.), caddisflies (Limnophilus spp.), damsel and dragonflies including  azure damselfly (Coenagrion puella) and Emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator), non-biting midges (Chironomus spp.) mosquitoes, some species of hoverflies and soldier flies, and even some moths such as the brown china-mark (Elophila nymphaeata).

brown-china-mark moth-wildlife garden 2013-08-07

Brown China mark moth (Elophila nymphaeata) whose larvae are aquatic

Pond-dipping is a popular activity with school groups as well as with adult visitors to our monthly ‘Lates’ evenings. These aquatic invertebrates are even more popular however with the wildlife garden’s thriving amphibian population of toads, frogs and newts.

In April a number of us wildlife garden volunteers together with this year’s five ID Trainers were taught by the Museum’s Identification Trainers for the Future, Project manager, Steph West, how to identify the 3 main species of newt that are found in the UK.

The Great Crested newt (Triturus cristatus) is the largest of the three and can easily be identified by its large crest and general warty appearance. Its crest also has a break at the base of its tail.

The  smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) and palmate newt (Lissotriton helveticus) can appear to look very similar at first glance as they are of similar lengths, body shape and colouring but an easy way of identifying each species is by checking the underside of their mouth. Smooth newts have black spots running along the underneath of their bodies whereas palmate newts have no spots underneath their mouth. Also during breeding season palmate newt males can be easily distinguishable through their webbed back feet which is something that doesn’t occur amongst smooth newts. Males in each species are generally bigger than the females.

We were also given a brief introduction into the world of consultancy and specifically Great Crested Newt Surveying. It’s important to note that great crested newts are a protected species and therefore a Natural England licence is required in order to be able to carry out a survey involving this species.

The next phase of our training was to carry out a quick habitat survey of the Wildlife Garden ponds followed by two methods of newt survey: torching and bottle trap surveys. For torching the most effective technique is to hold out your arm as far in front of you as possible and shine the light downwards and towards you as this is helpful in guiding newts towards you as they try and swim away from the light. Torching was fairly effective in searching for newts and we were able to identify a few smooth newts in the process but the strength of the torches and pond cover made it quite a challenge.


 Torching survey at the edge of the chalk pond © Frances Dismore

Assembling bottle traps is extremely easy all that’s required is a bamboo stick and a 2 litre plastic bottle.


Assembling bottle traps © Frances Dismore

The stick simply acts as an anchor to place the trap into the pond and keep it steady. Floating bottle traps were also used.



                     Setting the bottle traps © Rohit Bangay

We set our bottle traps along the edges of the ponds and spread them about a metre or two apart. It’s important to make sure that the traps are placed in the ponds at the correct depth so that the newts are comfortable and have a sufficient amount of oxygen and water. Once placed, we left them overnight and came back early the next morning to see what we had found.


Volunteers and Identification Trainers  inspecting a bottle trap


Identifying a trapped newt

We were all extremely pleased to find in excess of 40 newts overall and it was a great pleasure to see these magnificent creatures close up. One palmate newt was identified and the rest were smooth newts.  Unfortunately we didn’t find any great crested newts but ultimately it was a successful survey.


Smooth newts about to be released into the pond © Frances Dismore

It’s amazing to think that in one of the busiest areas in London, and Kensington being one of the most polluted areas, that this unique space within the Museum grounds is thriving with so many species.”


Smooth newt – drawing by Rohit Bangay

And,  thank you to our amazing multi-talented volunteers for text, photographs, drawing and the following animation of smooth newts in the pond by Miles Äijälä.