Reptiles and amphibians are related although there are some fundamental differences between them. The two are usually grouped together and are sometimes known as herptiles. I will not attempt to explain the differences as my purpose here is to help with finding and identifying them rather than understanding their biology.
The reptiles seen in Dorset, and we have all six native species plus a couple of introduced species, are restricted to snakes and lizards. Worldwide, reptiles species are numerous and much more diverse. Our British native snakes are the adder (sometimes called the viper), the grass snake and the smooth snake. Our lizard species are the slow-worm, the common lizard and the sand lizard. In addition to these native species you can also find the wall lizard and the green lizard; these are often around the sandy cliffs of Bournemouth and Boscombe.
Amphibians are restricted to two groups, newts and frogs/toads. The three species of native newts you can encounter here are the great crested, the palmate and the smooth newt. We also have the common frog, common toad and natterjack toad as native species and the introduced marsh frog. The natterjack toad and the marsh frog are very restricted in range.
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Slow-worm? It is neither slow or a worm
As I have said before in my nature notes common English names can be very misleading. The slow-worm (Anguis fragilis) is obviously not a worm at all, it is not even a snake, it is a lizard. Despite its lack of legs it is a lizard and it can move very quickly when it needs to. It lives much of the time under ground and so legs would just get in the way and it can move much more effectively in its environment without them. It is because they live in the soil they are called worms of course.
The slow-worm has smooth scales and is usually brown or grey in colour. Indeed, in sunshine they can look an amazing combination of bronze and copper.
The slow-worm is quite common but, perhaps, not often seen. Your best chance is to have a compost heap in your garden and then watch out for young slow-worms emerging. The adult slow-worm emerges from hibernation in March and can spend a lot of time basking in the spring sunshine, usually in a well hidden spot in herbage, to gain warmth as they, like all reptiles, are cold blooded and need the sun's rays to enable them to become active. They mate in May and the young are born in late August or even early September.
Slow-worms are a gardener's friend as they eat large numbers of slugs and snails. They have been known, in captivity, to eat small mice so this is quite a fearsome predator in the wild. In my opinion the slow-worm is a stunningly beautiful reptile and they are certainly welcome in our garden.
Common Lizard: feeling tyred
I was leading a walk when we encountered a common lizard (Lacerta vivipara) on a discarded car tyre. Despite being very vulnerable and with over a dozen people staring at it it did not budge an inch. After a short while one of the party said "Is it tired?". I explained that reptiles are cold blooded and as it was not a particularly warm day this lizard would be short of heat and so would be lethargic. The rubber tyre was absorbing some heat from the sun and the lizard was then absorbing heat from the tyre ... then the penny dropped and I got the joke! Despite a ripple of laughter the 'tyred' lizard stayed put while many of us photographed it!
The Dorset heath is home to all six species of indigenous reptiles and lizards tend to be a little easier to find as they are happy to sun bathe in more conspicuous places than snakes. The best time to find them, as it is with all reptiles, is in the morning in spring when you can find them basking in the sunshine until they can get moving and find their breakfast. Once they are warm they are much more elusive creatures. They can feel the ground vibrate as you approach and make off into cover and safety. Unless you catch them cold like I did this one they are really difficult to find and get a decent view of.
The common Lizard is by far our most widespread reptile, as its name would imply. It is found across much of the country, not just on heathland but anywhere the habitat is relatively undisturbed. Despite being common, however, it is rarely seen unless you go looking for it. It is our smallest native species of lizard and it eats small insects and spiders, it is not large enough to tackle anything bigger.
Sand Lizard: the sun worshipper!
There are some species that really are specialities here in Dorset. In fact, in the National Biodiversity Database there are more species recorded for the Isle of Purbeck than for any other area of similar size in the whole of the United Kingdom (this is what I am told, I have never checked it out!). This is primarily because of the Dorset heathland and the special animals and plants found there; some are very rare indeed and found only in this habitat. So it is with the sand lizard (Lacerta agilis). Along with the smooth snake they are nationally very rare creatures but are common here; they take some finding however!
The sand lizard was once more widespread in Britain than just the heaths of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey. They do have pretty specific habitat requirements; the soil must be sandy for them to be able to lay their eggs, they like extensive vegetation for shelter, a good supply of insects to feed on and sunny south facing slopes to warm up by sun-bathing. It has taken a lot of conservation effort to create areas ideally suited to it and the success of this has led to the species spreading further and further afield. I understand some are now being re-introduced to areas from where they have been lost
Being cold blooded they often use metal, especially corrugated iron, to warm themselves. The metal quickly heats in the sun and retains that heat and the lizards and snakes are quick to take advantage of it. However, until they are up to temperature there is little they can do to avoid the glare of the camera!
During the breeding season the male sand lizard has a lovely bright green colouring on its flanks and both sexes have distinctive 'eye-spots' on their back. They are quite 'chubby' and so they are quite easily told apart from their duller, slimmer cousins, the common lizard. Like our other lizard species they are primarily insect eaters but the sand izard is capable of taking larger prey and will even eat young of its own species.
Wall lizard: rocking on the cliffs
The wall lizard (Podarcis muralis) is considered to be an introduced species to this country. It is a common species throughout most of Europe. It also occurs on Jersy where it may be native so it would be quite able to turn up here on the south coast and there are good populations in various pockets in Dorset, especially on the zig-zag paths in Bournemouth and in the limestone quarries of Purbeck and Portland.
They are larger than our native common lizard and brown in colour but the male develops a beautiful mottled green streak along its back during the breeding season. This green colouring could lead to confusion with the sand lizard but their habitat requirements are so totally different that it should be obvious which is which!
These are active little creatures, quickly gathering warmth from walls and rocks as they enjoy basking in the sun and they are quite confiding, only running off if directly threatened. Sadly, as with many 'invading' species, it seems that their presence may have a detrimental effect on populations of our common lizards so whilst they add to the diversity of our fauna there is a price to be paid.
Grass Snake: the snake in the grass?
Over thirty years ago my wife and I were out for a stroll near our home and were returning along the roadside footpath that led towards our house. Stood in the road was a policeman who looked rather concerned and apprehensive; he was staring intently at the ground. As we approached we could see he was looking at a snake in the middle of the road! He obviously wanted to move it but was not at all sure whether he would survive the experience. I was pleased to be able to tell him it was not an adder, it was a grass snake. "Err, how can you be sure?" he asked. No V on the back of the head, no zigzag design down the back, yellow patches on the side of the head, too large to be an adder, wrong habitat - he was convinced, picked up the snake and moved it to safety at the side of the road!
Although called the grass snake (Natrix natrix) this is not a snake that we often see in grassy areas, not because they are not there but because they are hidden. They are also nervous creatures that will generally slide away as soon as they detect you approaching. You most frequently see them in water, they are strong swimmers. They can be seen in lakes and ponds, including garden ponds, where they are both looking for food (they adore a fresh frog for lunch) or they are cooling off on hot days. They have become increasingly uncommon in the wild and large gardens with a pond and a good compost heap are now their preferred habitat where they stalk their prey and eat it alive which can be disconcerting if you hear the screams of a frog that is half inside a grass snake!
Going back to the opening story, I have since found out that they often 'play dead' when under threat which is probably why it was lying in the road when approached by the policeman, there being no cover to 'run' to. I also understand that they can release a foul smelling liquid from their anal gland when handled and stressed so I reckon that policeman got away lightly don't you?
Adder: summing it up
I guess if there is one species of British wildlife that will strike fear into people then it has to be the adder (Vipera berus)! Not only is it a snake (and many people love to hate snakes), it is a poisonous snake and uses its venom to kill its prey.
Now I am not going to pretend the adder is a harmless creature and I treat them with respect as anyone should, but I never see reports of people being bitten by them. Here in the Purbeck area of Dorset the adder is probably as 'common' as it is anywhere and if people were suffering serious effects of adder bites we would surely know about it. If anything it is uncontrolled dogs that are most likely to be 'innocent' victims of the adder and I am not even sure that that is at all common either. The reality is that the adder is a very shy creature and can detect approaching people by the vibrations in the ground and so they generally slide away in to nearby cover at the first hint of danger approaching. Only if accidentally trodden on, or foolishly handled, are they likely to bite.
I said above that the adder is as common here in Purbeck as it is anywhere but the truth is that the adder is now far from common even here and it seems to be in serious decline. Research shows that as the adder's natural habitat becomes fragmented by roads and development so populations are forced to interbreed and the gene pool is becoming very weak and the species is dying out. Efforts are under way to try and correct this but it will take time before enough can be captured and relocated in to other colonies before we know if the programme is successful.
Not only can they be found on the Purbeck heaths you may also find them basking on sea cliffs, grass downland, south facing embankments and other 'wild' places.
To many, I guess the news of the decline of the adder will be welcome but it is such a truly beautiful creature with those striking markings down its back and dark V on the back of its head that to me the loss of the adder would be a tragedy. I rarely see them but when I do I never fail to be thrilled buy the sight; they are just special!
Smooth Snake: a real smoothie
All of our three native British species of snake are now scarce to say the least but the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) is nationally rare. In Dorset, however, thanks to the large area of remaining lowland heath which is now a protected habitat they are actually quite well established. Despite this they are rarely seen as they are very shy and secretive creatures and you are very fortunate if you encounter one.
It is a small, slender snake with what I consider to be a very gentle face! They are not, however, gentle creatures and are quite capable of killing lizards and slow-worms as part of their diet. They are constrictors squeezing their victim to death before swallowing them whole. They are not venomous and are totally harmless to human beings
As their name implies, their skin is smooth to touch as the scales lie flat and this, as well as their size and pale brown blotched skin, tells them apart from the other two species. That said, they are a protected species and should not be handled without a licence to do so as they need to be treated with care to avoid injury,
It is such a shame many people dislike, or are even frightened of, snakes. They are truly awesome animals in my view.
Common Frog: The spawn of a new day
There can be very few of us who did not watch common frog (Rana temporaria) spawn turn in to small frogs in our school days. It was many years ago now but I remember quite clearly a fish tank in the corner of our classroom at primary school with developing frogs in it. We watched as the spawn hatched in to tadpoles and then as the tadpoles grew legs and developed towards being mature frogs. One day the tank was gone! Our teacher had decided that they were close enough to being adults that they needed to leave home ...
Towards the middle of February each year significant numbers of frogs, possibly sixty or seventy, make their way in to our garden pond and for a couple of days there is a complete frenzy of mating frogs and then silence, they are gone. Left behind are the sticky masses of spawn, lumps of small jelly balls with a black dot in the centre of each. The spawn is so vulnerable to freezing weather and in some years is lost. Then the blackbirds take their share too as the spring progresses and they have young to feed.
Despite this predation and the vagaries of the British weather there is so much spawn and so many tadpoles that many will survive and leave the pond in June to live the rest of their lives on land returning to our pond next spring to ensure the cycle continues. Once adults they will live much of their lives out of water and are more active at night when its cooler but in hot weather you can see them by day back in the pond of their birth to keep cool and moist.
All frog species have smooth skin which easily sets them apart from the simlar toads which have warty skins. The common frog generally has a blotched olive green skin but it can be quite variable.
Marsh Frog: you are having a laugh!
It seems that the marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibundus) was introduced to Britain in 1933 when twelve were intentionally released at Romney Marsh in Kent. I cannot find out why they were released but the fact does seem to have been documented at the time. Since then this colony has grown and spread and there have been further introductions and there is now a colony at at least one site in Dorset. Whether this was a result of natural colonisation or introduction I have no idea. It occupies a breeding sites not used by other native amphibians and can be found in dykes, ditches and fen so the reed beds of Dorset suit it well. The marsh frog, however, is a voracious predator and further introductions are forbidden under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Marsh frogs are most noticeable by the "very loud, raucous sequence of duck-like quacks which build to a loud laugh-like cackle (ridibundus means laughing) heard day and night." [Britain's Reptiles and Amphibians - Howard Inns]. They like to bask on the edge of their chosen water supply and jump spectacularly into the water when alarmed.
My thanks to Ian Andrews for the 'tip-off' about marsh frogs at West Bexington and for his photograph.
Common toad: warts and all!
It is not difficult to distinguish the common toad (Bufo bufo) from a frog; it is much darker in colour, often brown or verging on black, and has a warty skin, frogs are much greener, often two tone in colour and have smooth skin. They are very different in other aspects too, shape, size, etc.
Much less common than they once were, toads are probably more frequently found in gardens with ponds than they are 'in the wild'. That said, although they are inhabitants of gardens they are primarily nocturnal and can find some pretty obscure and safe, dark, damp places to pass the day time and so you may have toads in your garden and never know it. Your best chance of seeing them is in March and April which is when they return to the pond of their birth to breed.
Apart from the breeding season they rarely go in to ponds, other than if they need to cool down. They live mainly on dry land and can roam quite a long way from their 'home' pond so if you do find one in your garden it does not necessarily mean their pond is yours or your neighbours. They dine on slugs and other invertebrates and so can be considered a gardener's friend.
Our perception of toads seems to be a mixture of connections with witchcraft (the witches in the Scottish play use toad parts if I recall, or was it in A Midsummer Night's Dream?) to the endearing Toad of Toad Hall in the Wind in the Willows! We can also refer to people we are not happy with as toads!
An extremely rare nocturnal amphibian probably found at only one site in Dorset
Smooth Newt: in the spotlight
Of our three native newt species the smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) is the one can be encountered in the widest array of habitat. It is as at home in your garden pond as it is in ponds in the countryside where it has a preference for small, shallow ponds with non-acidic, more neutral or alkaline water. That means they are unlikely to be seen in heathland pools and ditches where palmate newts are more frequent.
It may be our most common newt (note the Latin name 'vulgaris' meaning vulgar or common!) but it is still not seen frequently as newts in general are far less numerous than they once were and they are also often more active at night. This particular species has suffered from the decline of village ponds and the pollution with nitrates of ponds on farms. I have no doubt my records of smooth newt on the Nature of Dorset website vastly understate the distribution of smooth newt because of this nocturnal preference as well as the limited time they spend in water. They are becoming increasingly dependant on garden ponds but if you want them in your garden pond it needs to be free of fish!
During April and May when they take to the water to breed you can find them by shining a torch in to ponds after dark! They are smaller than great crested newts but larger than palmate newts the males have spots and a crest in the breeding season. Although brown in colour they can appear much darker in water.
Great crested newt: a national treasure
This may not be the greatest of photographs but I do not have an underwater camera (yet!). This is, however, something of a special picture for me as this it was taken the first and only time in nearly forty years of nature watching that I saw (let alone photographed) a great crested newt (Triturus cristatus). They are found at various sites in Dorset and I chanced upon this one in a pond on the north Dorset ridge near Okeford Hill.
Spring, April and May, are the best time to see them as this is when they take to water to breed, the rest of the year they live on land and are hard to find. Even if you do see one it is easy to mistake it for a lizard. This is a female laying eggs on vegetation around the edge of the pond. Being the female she lacks the 'great crest' of the male but has the diagnostic silvery sides of the head. This species is somewhat larger than either the smooth or palmate newt and as this one was over 4 inches long it really does not leave any doubt as to species. In this particular pond there were several, the females laying eggs whilst the males swam around keeping an eye on proceedings. As far as I could tell there were at least twelve different animals in the small part of the pond I could actually see so, in all, there were probably several more.
One of Britain's national wildlife treasures, this is not a common species and is protected by law of course.Britain is a stronghold for them in Europe but even here they have declined in numbers as suitable habitat is eroded.
Palmate newt: putting its foot in it
There are three species of British newt, the great crested, the smooth and the palmate. The great crested has a great crest, the smooth newt is smooth, so what about the palmate newt (Triturus helveticus); why palmate? Time to turn to my dictionary again for a specific definition of palmate: "of the feet; having three toes connected by webbing". That says it all really, now we know why it is the palmate newt; if you look at the hind feet of the male they are, indeed, webbed.
The palmate newt occurs across much of western Europe (although not in Ireland) and in some areas it is endangered and in others it is relatively common. in Britain they seem to be rather local but where they occur can be quite common. Like other amphibians they live on land for much of the year, hibernate in winter and it is only in the breeding season they are found in water (apart from hot spells, of course, when they may take to water to cool down as they are cold blooded creatures).
In March and April, possibly May, you can see them in ponds and lakes and they are frequently seen in ditches along paths on heaths, usually where there is acidic water. The Dorset heaths are a good place to find them given the conditions that apply there. They can easily be mistaken for lizards on land being similar in appearance. The palmate newt is much smaller than the common lizard but it will depend on how good a view you get of it, once warmed up they can move pretty quickly!