Amphibians and reptiles of The Living Coast

28 April 2022

The coming of Spring heralds the appearance of some of The Living Coasts most special creatures.

Kim Greaves of Brighton & Hove’s Wildlife Forum helps us get to know our local amphibians and reptiles:

In the depths of winter it isn’t the thought of woodlands full of Bluebells or Orange-tip Butterflies floating by that makes me long for the coming change in season. As lovely as those things are, the natural events that send my mind racing months ahead on those long dark nights are that of springtime’s dancing Adders and spawning amphibians.

In total, we have six species of reptile and seven species of amphibian native to the UK. The widespread reptiles you are most likely to see here in Sussex are Viviparous (“Common”) Lizards, Slow Worms, Grass Snakes and Adders. On the amphibian side, Common Toads, Common Frogs, Palmate Newts, Smooth Newts and Great Crested Newts can all be seen in nature reserves, parks and gardens across The Biosphere.

Smooth Snakes, Sand Lizards, and Natterjack Toads are the rarer species which have restricted ranges in the county and you would have to go all the way to East Anglia to see a Northern Pool Frog! We also have a number of introduced species in Britain, such as the Midwife Toad and Aesculapian Snake.

mating toads

Mating toads. Image credit Ryan Greaves

These creatures of myth and legend have long had a hold over our collective consciousness. Warty, slimy, cold-blooded and deadly are all adjectives frequently used to describe these species, found in everything from Shakespearean tomes to tabloid headlines.

Adders in particular seem to draw out the worst of our innate fears and mistrust. In spring and summer, barely a week goes by without a newspaper headline screaming of giant “poisonous” snakes invading our beaches, attacking our children and taking our homes.

With all of this unrelenting bad press, it is hard not to associate them on some level with witchcraft and skullduggery. But as we learn more about their intimate and complex lives it is becoming clear that our amphibians and reptiles are anything but the sly harbingers of doom we have painted them to be.

They are soft, delicate, beautiful and special. They have social lives, are long lived, some bear live young and they all play key roles in healthy ecosystems. But most of all, we are quickly realising that they are in serious trouble and need our help.

For example, 90% of Adder populations surveyed are in decline, and with current trends within just 10 years they could be restricted to just a handful of sites in the UK. While Common Toads have declined by 68% in the last 30 years.

Why is this? These are species with relatively unfussy habitat requirements which were once widespread, yet now are imperilled despite decades of laws intended to protect and conserve them.

The sad truth is that it is down to us.

basking adder

Basking adder. Image credit Ryan Greaves

Across the landscape, development has fractured amphibian and reptile populations into ever more isolated pockets, leaving them at risk to factors such as inbreeding and genetic isolation. While the international movement of amphibians for research and the pet trade has introduced diseases that our native amphibians haven’t evolved to be able to cope with. Now, the spread of these deadly introduced diseases is being inadvertantly aided by well intentioned people moving spawn, tadpoles and adult amphibians between ponds.

You see, despite their seemingly thick skins, reptiles and amphibians are extremely sensitive to disease, disturbance and habitat degradation. Amphibians need safe passage to and from their breedIng ponds, invertebrates to eat and ponds with good water quality. Reptiles similarly need sunny fringe habitats, low disturbance and connections to surrounding populations. In our drive for development and progress we are rapidly creating an environment which no longer serves even those simple needs.

In early spring, a male Adder has to lie out and bask at every opportunity in order to build up the reserves for the coming breeding season. He will then shed his skin, becoming resplendent in bright ash white and black and “dance” with other males, tussling to assert dominance, competing for the right to mate with a female. The victor will then lie with her, gently tapping his chin along her back and following her every move. Every naturalist’s dream is to witness this natural spectacle first hand, but few are ever lucky enough to do so.

Outside of this period female Adders need to bask extensively to incubate their brood which they rear internally, giving birth to live young in late August and September. This process is extremely taxing and therefore females may only breed every 2-3 years. Even though they can be long lived, up to 20 years, on average a female Adder will successfully rear young just 1.5 times in her lifetime.

dancing adders

Dancing adders. Image credit Ryan Greaves

Studies are showing that, just like us, they are individuals too, with distinct habits and personalities. They are social animals, with some choosing to move long distances to hibernation spots to hibernate communally with specific “friends”, with others travelling similarly long distances to breed with specific individuals year on year. This complex social life, tied to specific features in the landscape, and the sensitivity of reptiles to stress and disturbance means that translocations aimed at moving populations to make way for development rarely work, with an estimated survival rate revealed in a recent study to be as low as 1-2%.

On sites where there is increasing levels of disturbance, particularly by off lead dogs and non-native game birds released for shooting, Adders can also suffer terribly, as they become less able to bask undisturbed and therefore unable meet their metabolic needs, and at greater risk of predation. Given their extremely low reproductive rate, this can be enough to send a population spiralling.

Finally, the misplaced fear and falsehoods still spread about these species in our urban legends inflame some to the point where they will intentionally cause harm to these precious creatures given opportunity. As a result us surveyors worry endlessly about the animals we watch over, keeping sites under wraps and minimising dicussions to trusted individuals.

As a community we now know that we alone can’t protect our reptiles and amphibians from all of these threats they face. These issues can only be solved by our society as a whole deciding that these miracles of nature are too precious to lose. So we have to start to tell their fascinating stories and try to do all we can inspire others to turn any initial fear into an interest, based on a richly deserved respect and reverence.

For these are wonderfully warty, slimy and scaley animals. And I for one couldn’t fathom a spring which no longer dances or purrs from bustling ponds…..

slow worm

Slow worm. Image credit Ryan Greaves

Things we can all do to help:

  • spread the word about how amazing these species really are!
  • Build wildlife ponds, make meadows and join up nature rich habitats, and encourage others to do so
  • If you see a reptile out basking or moving through the landscape, move slowly, back away and give it space. They will always flee when given the opportunity.
  • Never try to handle any reptile or amphibian. Being prey species, they are sensitive to stress and will needlessly expend defenses that could save their lives in the wild.
  • Record your sightings of reptiles and amphibians on i-Record. This will send your record to the local Biodiversity Records Centre and help us build a better picture of how they are faring, allowing us to protect them for future generations.
  • Never move spawn, tadpoles or adult amphibians between ponds. Doing so could spread diseases, harming your local populations.
  • Keep pet cats as indoor house cats. Cat predation has a major impact on all sorts of native wildlife from birds to bats to Slow Worms.
  • Keep dogs on leads and away from the sunny edges of scrub and grassland in spring and autumn on sites with reptiles, when they are most vulnerable to disturbance.
  • Keep dogs out of wildlife ponds at all times. Dogs stir up silt which enriches the pond water, causing damaging algal blooms and flea treatments contain pesticides which kill the invertebrate life tadpoles depend upon for food
  • Join organisations such as Sussex Reptile and Amphibian Group to learn more, become a reptile and amphibian surveyor or a Toad Patroller
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