Introducing Newt Gingrich

gingrich the newt

Finally, I managed to get some pictures of our newt. We’ve known he was in the pond for a couple of weeks now, ever since a torchlit examination of the pond revealed him wallowing in the frogspawn, clearly replete (‘a wafer-thin tadpole, Mr Gingrich?’).

gingrich walking, flash of tail colour

My daughter discovered that his favoured hide-out is under a clump of grass that overhangs the pond, and wanted to catch him for a closer look. I refused this with a long lecture about how these little creatures are under our custodianship and how we should protect them and not interfere with them. After a week or to of trying to get pictures of him without much success, I radically reviewed my position and gave Gingrich a short day trip into a carefully prepared baking dish filled with rocks and pond water home-from-home aquatic environment. He didn’t seem particularly perturbed by this, thankfully, and I got a few half decent shots. I wish I had a camera with manual focus though, as I just can’t get it as sharp as I’d like with the auto. I think I’ve got it, but then I look at the pics and the specs on the surface of the water are in tip top macro focus.

emerging stealthily from a rock

Gingrich is a smooth, or common newt, Lissotriton vulgaris, the most widespread of the English newts. They’re to be found in water during the breeding season, which runs from around February to June, and oustisde of this period they live on land in cool damp places – a wood pile in the corner of your garden is just perfect. Newts eat small invertebrates and reproduce in a similar way to frogs and toads, with a tadpole stage. Unlike frog or toad tadpoles though, newt tadpoles (efts) develop their front legs first, and their eggs are deposited singly, wrapped carefully in the leaf of an aquatic plant. The males develop a breeding ‘plummage’, with a wavy raised crest along the dorsal surface and brighter colours than the female. It’s always struck me as odd that humans are one of the few species where the females decorate themselves for the delectation of the male – in most species it’s the other way around. I guess human males still engage enthusiastically in the whole ‘display’ thing though, as evidenced by a trip into any county town centre on a Saturday night.

tadpoles in a sea of bubbles

Well, moooooving on… the frog tadpoles are also developing at an amazing rate. When they first ‘hatched’, they spent a long while eating their way out of the jelly casing, and building up their muscles with endless wriggling. They form little lakes of writhing glistening bodies, their efforts working up a head of bubbles that surround them. When the tadpoles first emerge from the jelly it’s clear to see the feathery gills that protrude from the sides of their heads. Within a few days, though, these seem to have disappeared, and the tadpoles are looking far more like the fully formed version that will enlarge and enlarge until they start to form limb buds weeks from now.

early tadpole development

I’ve been reading this week about how amphibians breathe, as I was confused by the fact that a frog can hibernate at the bottom of the pond all winter, yet a female frog is sometimes drowned by the amorous advances of a group of males who hold her in overly enthusiastic amplexus under the water. Similarly, if a pond doesn’t have easy exit points, froglets at the point of emergence from the water will drown if they can’t get out safely. I figured that the extreme slowing of the metabolic rate during hibernation would probably play a part, and indeed it does. Adult frogs do have lungs, but they work in a very different way to ours. We breath without any conscious effort, our autonomic nervous system causing the diaphram to move downwards and draw air into our lungs. Frogs have lungs, but no diaphram. There is no automatic breathing for the frog; he takes big gulps of air when he needs to, to supplement the oxygen he absorbs through his skin and mucous membranes. A frog at rest will obtain most of the oxygen he needs by diffusion from the air or water. But if he’s active his or her oxygen needs will be much greater, and the need to gulp air will be vital to life. Newts are similar; the more active they are, the less they can rely on their ability to have oxygen diffuse through their moist skin, and the more often they will need to surface. The characteristic ‘pop’ sound is the bubble of carbon dioxide escaping as the newt comes to the surface to grab a mouthful of air. You can see him doing that in the video HERE, and some more footage of him HERE.

darter dragonfly nymph

The older and more adventurous tadpoles are dispersing further now from the deep end of the pond where all the spawn was. We’ve cleared out as much blanket weed as possible to give more clear swimming areas for them. There are hundreds to thousands of little dragonfly nymphs, most of which are much too small to pose any threat to a tadpole, frankly. The insanely boring rescue operation has continued, whereby every bit of blanket weed is minutely scrutinised to find every possible 2mm long nymph so that it can be returned to the pond to grow another day. A far graver threat to the taddies are the enormous broad bodied chaser dragonfly nymphs – Libellula depressa – which at around 2cm long can munch the tadpoles as an impressive rate.

nymph of the broad bodied chaser dragonfly

My innate and uncontrollable insect phobia means that despite my strong feelings of altruism and goodwill towards all pondlife, if I unexpectedly find a critter on or near my fingers I shriek like a banshee and catapult the poor little beastie across the garden at warp speed. I can’t explain it, still less control it, but my deep primeval fear outweighs all my conscious thoughts. I totally understand all the people who’ve ever fled, screaming, from my snakes. I can pick up small insects now with very determined intention and a repeated mantra of it’s-fine-it-won’t-hurt-me-it’s-fine-it-won’t-hurt-me etc, but anything unexpected and it’s right back to doing the involutary huge-creepy-crawlies-are-running-straight-up-my-legs-and-into-my-knickers dance. Which is at least highly amusing for anyone watching, if not for me.

I’ll include a few pictures from walks we’ve had recently. The seemingly endless sunny days are rushing spring through at an alarming rate. Next door’s mature cherry tree which overhangs our garden has gone from bare to bursting in the last few days. I’ve taken a picture of it today just as the first fat white blooms are covering the branches. I’ll post it in a week or so as a ‘before and after’: that tree, in full bloom against a deep blue sky, is one of the highlights of my year.


3 thoughts on “Introducing Newt Gingrich

  1. Have you always been fascinated by these little creeps? Very interesting your description of your insect phobia. As always, beautiful photos and videos. In the Netherlands next week again very cold, below zero degrees. My blossom (the neighbor) are now half in bloom.

  2. The difference between ‘goodwill towards all pondlife’ and ‘uncontrollable insect phobia’ is based on two different parts of the brain: the cortex and the limbic system. The cortex still can not compete with old evolutionire systems (fears) in our heads. Perhaps an example that we should take the idea of ​​”free will” with a grain of salt… Besides, a startle response is often useful.

  3. Hi Charles, I have always had a fear of insects, which I have worked at trying to overcome. You’re absolutely right about the different parts of the brain. However much I try to rationalise it, I can’t control that instinctive reaction. So I can pick up a small nymph for a moment, but it takes supreme effort to not react instinctively and throw it away. I have no fear of snakes whatsoever, but anything with lots of legs… terrified!
    It’s much colder here too since Friday, a noticeable drop in temperature. At least you have the tulips!

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