The name ‘amphibian’ means both kinds (amphi) of life (bios) – terrestrial and aquatic. In March, amphibians start their return to water, and then spend a few months in ponds, to mate and lay their eggs. Once they have mated, the adults move away; by late summer even the tiny young are no longer aquatic tadpoles and they, too, migrate to land.
Reptiles are not tied to water, though grass snakes like to hunt in it for fish and occasionally frogs. The fermenting warmth of compost bins and manure heaps are more attractive to reptiles, which use the heat to lay and incubate their eggs and young.
Identify more garden wildlife:
Here are some common amphibians and reptiles that you might spot in your own garden.
Common frog (Rana temporaria)
The common frog has a smooth-skinned greenish, brownish or yellowish body, 6-9cm long, often marked, marbled or streaked. It has long legs for hopping. It lays over 1,000 eggs in a gelatinous spawn mass.
Common toad (Bufo bufo)
The common toad has a large, stout body, 8-15cm long, which is warty, brown or olive-green. Fatter and larger than the frog, its short legs are used for walking. It lays 600-4,000 eggs in gelatinous spawn ribbons. They live for a long time – 40 years have been recorded.
Common lizard (Zootoca vivipara)
Slim and short-legged, the lizard’s mottled brown or yellow body, with orange, red or yellow tinges, can reach 16cm, including its tail. The male has a spotted or striped belly. It lives in rough, grassy places and basks on logs or rocks. Eats insects, spiders, worms and slugs.
Grass snake (Natrix helvetica)
The grass snake’s olive-green body, 70-150cm, has dark spots along the sides. Its head has a yellow and black collar with large, black side marks behind. The underside is a black and yellow-green harlequin pattern. It visits ponds to hunt fish, frogs and newts. It leaves a sinuous wake when it swims.
Slow worm (Anguis fragilis)
The slim, pale, metallic greyish-brown body of this legless lizard reaches 30-45cm. Dark-streaked down the sides, especially females and young. Often shelters in groups in warm, dry places. It can release its tail to escape predators – the tail continues to writhe long after.
Adder (Vipera berus)
Shorter (60-90cm) and stouter than the grass snake, the adder’s body has a pale-brown background, with a darker or black zigzag down the back. It likes dry, warm places – moors, heaths and woods, and eats small mammals like birds, lizards and frogs.
Smooth (or common) newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)
This newt’s slim, dark, mottled, olive-green, brown and black body reaches 7-10cm, including its tail. Males have a brightly patterned orange belly with black spots, and a tall, wavy crest down the neck, back and tail. Females lay single eggs on aquatic leaves.
Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus)
The great crested newt has a slim, dark olive or slate-black, slightly warty body, reaching 11-17cm, including tail. The underside of the male has fiery orange, yellow and black marks, with a high, ragged crest along the body and tail.
Palmate newt (Lissotriton helveticus)
The palmate newt is similar to the smooth newt, with a 7-11cm body. The males are olive-brown and the females have a yellow-pink throat, but they lack the smooth newt’s black spots. The males have webbed hind feet. It lives in shallow ponds on acid-rich soils.
Many thanks to Chris Shields for providing the beautiful illustrations used in this feature.