If you go out with a torch on a night in late February or March evening, you may see one of our most flamboyant wild animals. As the male smooth newt’s breeding finery is at its best now.
In the torchlight, he prowls like a miniature dragon over the bottom of the pond in search of a mate. To woo her he grows a large crest along his back which merges with his tail to create a striking profile.
The height of the male’s crest will influence the female because it is energetically costly to grow and so indicates his fitness. With a dark eye stripe, orange belly and black blotches over his body, he is a spectacular sight.
But it takes more than good looks to win a mate in the newt world: you need to be a performer too.
When the female newt approaches, the male positions himself side-on and wafts water towards her by vibrating the tip of his tail. As he vibrates his tail he sends secretions from his body to entice her. Sometimes he lashes his tail violently to create waves which can propel the female backwards.
At the close of his courtship dance, he deposits a package of sperm and manoeuvres her over it, so that she can take it up into her cloaca to fertilise her eggs. Later in spring she will lay these singly, enfolding each in the leaf of a water plant.
This dramatic courtship takes place by day, as well as by night, in garden ponds throughout most of the British Isles. If you’re lucky, you may see great crested newts as well, which are larger, dark and warty. The males have jagged, spiky crests rather than the rounded frills of the male smooth newt.
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Illustration by Rose Sanderson