By Charlotte Owen
Frogs and toads may have finished their spring spawning but the great crested newts are just getting started. These giants of the newt world can reach lengths of up to 17 cm, and their dark skin is patterned with darker spots and covered in distinctive little bumps or ‘warts’. Both males and females have fiery orange bellies with a pattern of black blots, and each individual’s pattern is unique. But it’s only the males that develop a great crest, and they grow this especially for the breeding season.
Having spent the winter sheltering on land, great crested newts emerge in late spring and travel back to their ancestral breeding ponds under the cover of darkness. Males arrive first and there is a race to claim a prime location within the pond, ideally an open area on the bottom without too much obscuring vegetation, so that they can perform their aquatic courtship displays to best effect as soon as the females make an appearance. Courtship is elaborate and each male will perform a range of moves involving rocking, leaning, and whipping or fanning his tail to waft pheromones towards an approaching female. If she shows interest, the male will walk away while quivering his tail and the female will follow, touching his tail with her nose. This stimulates him to release a small mass of sperm wrapped in jelly, which is collected by the female and used to fertilise her eggs internally. She will lay around 250 eggs between mid-April and mid-June, carefully depositing each one individually and wrapping it inside a leaf to keep it safe from predators.
After several weeks, the eggs will hatch into tiny transparent larvae that are difficult to spot until later in the summer, when they’ve grown bigger and darker. They are active predators and feed on aquatic insects and tadpoles for around sixteen weeks until their metamorphosis is complete, and they’re ready to emerge from the pond in their adult form.
Sussex is a stronghold for the great crested newt but their populations are patchily distributed and numbers are in decline, so this species remains fully protected by law to help safeguard its future.