A slippery slope for amphibians?

WILDLIFE lovers are urged to participate in efforts to save three, soft, slippery creatures that live on land and in water.

Some are rarely seen, but their presence is a sign of a healthy environment.

We have only three species of native amphibian — the common frog, the natterjack toad, which is confined to sand dunes in Kerry and Wexford, and the smooth newt. People are being asked to participate in newt and frog surveys, while the toad is the subject of research.

Results from 2011 revealed that smooth newts are widespread, with positive records from counties Cavan to Cork, and from Dublin to Connemara. The Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) survey is the first comprehensive study of its distribution.

Newts, which have a long tail and look like tiny dragons, are only found in still and slow-moving water, so the preservation of ponds, ditches and wetlands is essential to their survival.

They are scarce in agricultural land, but the IWT survey revealed that man-made habitats, particularly garden ponds and quarries, are now a significant habitat.

Newts are also found in boglands, which had previously been regarded as unsuitable for the species, and more needs to be done to assess the status of this important species in the Irish landscape, according to the IWT.

Despite recording, no newts have been found in Wexford, Offaly or Meath, while surveys are needed in Donegal, Leitrim, Tipperary, Limerick, Kilkenny, Louth, Laois, Kildare and Carlow to confirm their presence.

The survey, being carried out with the help of Dublin Zoo and Fota Wildlife Park, relies on a small army of volunteer ‘citizen scientists’ who are providing data that is promoting conservation in Ireland.

As they appear at night, newts are rarely seen. There is an opportunity around now, however, as they move out of hibernation and head for the breeding grounds. People are being urged to search their local ponds for newts, which make a popping sound when rising from the water, and training days are taking place around the country this month.

To register as a surveyor, or for more information, contact Dr Daniel Buckley at newts@iwt.ie, or on 086-3691982. Also, log on to the newt project page http://iwt.ie/what-we-do/newt-survey/. You can also check on www/iwt.ie.

The common frog, meanwhile, is our most abundant and widespread amphibian, but there are concerns about its status and possible population declines.

The Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) has launched its annual ‘hop to it’ frog survey to map the distribution and habitat preferences of the frog. Local wildlife enthusiasts all over the country are being asked to co-operate and to send in records of frog spawn, tadpoles, froglets and adult frogs.

One of the best places to start searching for frogs, says the IPCC, is in garden ponds. This man-made habitat will become increasingly important in future years, as the natural and wild habitats of the frog are lost to drainage and development.

February and March are the peak times for frog spawning, although spawning can occur in January, or even earlier in the south of the country if the temperature is mild enough, as has been happening this year.

Since the first ‘hop to it’ survey, in 1997, the IPCC has received more than 4,200 records. Though frogs are in decline worldwide, due to habitat destruction, pollution and infectious disease, the results of the survey, to date, show the common frog is widespread throughout Ireland, with 40% of records occurring in garden ponds.

Children can take part in the survey, but, because of dangers with water, they should go out with a parent, or another responsible adult.

The advice from the IPCC is that children should not wade into ponds, which can be deceptively deep.

Ponds, pools and stagnant water are the best places to look for frog spawn.

The arrival of males at a breeding pond is heralded by a chorus of croaking, which attracts the females. Once mating has occurred, fertilised eggs sink into the water and the jelly coat swells as it takes in water to protect the embryos.

The spawn then rises to the top of the water: it looks a bit like tapioca, which used to be a common dessert one time. Out of a clump of spawn containing 2,000 eggs, 95% of the eggs may hatch. However, only 1%-5% of the tadpoles make it through and only a handful of the original 2,000 reach sexual maturity. During spring and summer, many thousands are eaten by predators such as otters, foxes or herons, while human activities, including land drainage and road kill, are also a problem.

* For the frog survey, check out the simple online recording form for sightings of frogs and frog spawn on: www.npws.ie or www.arc-trust.org/loscan


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