How Can I Attract Newts & Salamanders to My Pond Or Yard? (Natural Methods)
Amphibians are an increasingly fragile group of animals. Their habitats are highly fragmented due to rapid urbanization. This has led to a drastic decrease in their populations all over the world. Their disappearance is often overlooked as a few common frogs and toads remain abundant, even in cities. Newts and salamanders, on the other hand, are so secretive that most of them go unnoticed.
These moisture-loving animals struggle to survive in environments where clean freshwater is scarce. Unfortunately, many must venture through harsh conditions as they go about the latter parts of their life cycle – finding a mate and an adequate water feature to serve as an egg-laying site. One such feature is a backyard pond.
Ponds are great environments for amphibian spawn and young. Newts and salamanders begin their lives as tadpoles, just like frogs and toads. The more naturalized the pond, the better. To ensure that you can successfully attract these animals and provide them with the necessary conditions to survive, it is important to understand their biology. Important facts, along with a few techniques to make your pond and garden more inviting, are discussed below.
Newts & Salamanders – Are They The Same?
It’s taxonomically correct to refer to all newts as salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts! These elusive amphibians are classified under the Salamandridae family, which includes 14 genera. A considerable percentage of these are endangered and threatened in the wild. All salamandrids are native to regions in the northern hemisphere, with most occurring in Europe and Asia.
The Salamandridae family is divided into two major subgroups: the “true” salamanders and the newts, which are classified under the subfamily Pleurodelinae. Salamanders differ from newts in that they are slimier or smooth-skinned. Newts may be rough-skinned, despite their semi or wholly aquatic lifestyle. When trying to differentiate between the two, take a close look at the feet and tail. Newts have paddle-like tails and webbed feet that allow them to expertly maneuver through the water. Salamanders have more pronounced toes and rounded tails due to their largely terrestrial lifestyle.
Other types of amphibians which are generally considered salamanders but are not “true” salamandrids include mudpuppies, lungless salamanders, and hellbenders. These have lung or skin modifications that prevent them from migrating through considerable distances in terrestrial environments. They need to remain moist or wet at all times.
Regardless of their features, both newts and salamanders have an affinity to water. While true salamanders simply venture into water features to lay their eggs, newts tend to remain in them for longer periods of their lives. If you’d like to effectively distinguish between these two fascinating amphibians, it’s best to familiarize yourself with some common species.
Some Common Newts & Salamanders
1) Smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)
Also referred to as the common newt or European newt, this species is easily mistaken for a lizard. It is mostly brown and has a white or orange-hued underside. It grows to a maximum length of just 4 inches (11 cm) at maturity. Once males are old enough to breed, the colors and patterns on their skin become more vivid. Smooth newts are nocturnal and are able to live on land when they aren’t breeding. They feed on a variety of invertebrates, including earthworms and small insects.
2) Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)
A common species in eastern North America, the eastern newt is a frequent pond visitor that can live for up to 20 years. At maturity, it can reach a length of 5 inches (12 cm). This species has been popularized by the aquarium industry due to its attractive coloration. The land-dwelling juveniles, technically referred to as red efts, are a bright shade of red-orange. They eventually become fully aquatic adults with less vivid pigmentation.
3) Eastern red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus)
This terrestrial species favors woodlands, where variable temperatures affect their color morphologies. In northern latitudes, where temperatures are cooler, this salamander takes on its typical red-backed appearance. A lead-backed form develops in slightly warmer temperatures. This form appears to be totally black. Both color morphs lack developed lungs and must respire through their moist skin. They feed on spiders, millipedes, and many small insects.
4) Northwestern salamander (Ambystoma gracile)
A type of mole salamander, Ambystoma gracile is a North American species that can grow quite large. It can reach a length of 8.7 inches (22 cm) at maturity. It is known for producing a fist-sized, firm, and jelly-like egg mass that is laid up to 6 feet (1.8 m) below the water’s surface. Adults are often found close to rotten logs or underground burrows in forests, woodlands, and grasslands. They are large-bodied, with wide abdomens, and may be brown, gray, or black.
Designing Wildlife Ponds for Newts & Salamanders
1) Importance of shade & temperature
Newts and salamanders need access to both sunlit and shady areas as they make use of microhabitats to regulate their body temperature. Species that are native to temperate zones are more accustomed to a wider range of temperatures, but will prefer moderate levels. A water temperature of 60 – 75˚F (15.5 – 24˚C) would be quite welcoming to aquatic newts and breeding salamanders.
Elevated temperatures and a lack of shade can discourage amphibians from visiting the pond. It should be a cool and inviting area that will prevent them from drying out. As an amphibian group that favors low temperatures, Salamandidae is predicted to be one of the first groups to suffer severely under extreme global warming. Their normal heart and metabolic rates are increased, at the cost of higher caloric demands, in high temperatures.
Keep your wildlife pond salamander-friendly by providing many shady and cool spots. Although they are cold-blooded, salamanders don’t normally bask. They will need the shade of tall plants, organic structures, and pond features. These will also prevent water from heating up quickly in summer.
2) Food sources for young to adult life phases
Salamander hatchlings take on an aquatic larval form, similar to the tadpoles of frogs and toads. Larvae favor aquatic invertebrates, such as small crustaceans and insect larvae. A fully naturalized wildlife pond, especially one that has become ecologically balanced after a few months to years, should have no problems supporting an abundance of these types of prey. Those reared in tanks are typically fed with chopped-up worms and brine shrimp.
Adults may venture in or out of ponds for food. They have tongues that allow them to feed on many invertebrates and insects in either soil or water. The area around the wildlife pond must also be naturalized with edge plants to ensure that prey are readily available. Fruit flies, crickets, maggots, mosquito larvae, and earthworms are just a few treats that your visiting salamanders will enjoy.
Keep in mind that newts and salamanders can easily be prey to larger animals. Diversifying the pond edge habitat structure is key to their survival.
3) Pond plants
Adult aquatic newts, larvae, and amphibian egg masses will need the shelter of submerged, floating, and marginal pond plants. Floating leaves, such as duckweed (Lemna minor) and water fern (Azolla mexicana) can help provide shade to your pond inhabitants and reduce water evaporation and heating rates in the summer.
The fronds of submerged plants can effectively hide vulnerable newts and their young from potential predators. They also increase the surface area and complexity of the pond bottom, providing breeding salamanders with many safe spots to lay their eggs. Marginal plants are just as important as they can facilitate the safe entry and exit of amphibians. Without them, salamanders may be dissuaded from entering the pond as they would be fully exposed.
When selecting plants to naturalize your pond, always prioritize species that are native to your area. These will be more inviting to nearby newts and salamanders due to their familiarity with the plant. These are also less likely to wreak havoc on the ecosystem or outcompete threatened species.
4) Platforms, rock piles, & brush piles
Structural features are key to attracting dozens of visiting amphibians. These provide them with cool shelter, shade, and protection from roving predators. These also open up many niches for potential prey to fill. The best part is these features can be made without any financial input and minimal effort. You can make use of natural materials (e.g. rocks, bricks, and twigs) found around your pond. You can also invest in more attractive features, such as driftwood, manmade grottos, and fountains.
Rock piles are a great addition to any amphibian pond as they are sturdy and provide cover from intense weather. Unused bricks and old bits of concrete can be piled alongside rocks to create a sturdy pile. Try to orient the rocks so that the base of the pile has many caves and crevices. Situate rock piles around your garden or right next to your pond’s margins. You can even elevate a pile on a platform in the center of your pond.
Brush piles, made of logs, posts, and pruned branches are also great for attracting amphibians. A 3×5 foot (0.9 – 1.5 m) pile should work wonders. Fill in gaps with soft material, such as leaves, to keep the structure moist. You can place one in an area that receives dappled morning light and afternoon shade so that it is kept moderately cool throughout the day. Brush piles should be adjacent to the pond or strategically situated between bodies of water to open up a zone of connectivity.
5) Pond depth
A pond with a depth of around 2 feet (61 cm) should effectively attract newts and salamanders. Some species tend to lay their eggs at even deeper depths, in a maze of submerged plants, to ensure that they are less accessible to predators. The pond should have a depth gradient, with margins being shallow and sloping inward. This will allow even young, considerably small salamanders to exit the pond without having to struggle.
Keeping Your Surroundings Salamander-Friendly
Urban zones pose many obstacles to amphibians. The further away your pond is situated from civilization, the higher your chances are of attracting newts and salamanders.
Busy streets, polluted water systems, trash sites, and scavenging city rodents are common impediments to amphibian survival. These are understandably unavoidable in many areas, so it is important to focus on creating pond surroundings that are nurturing. Urban gardens are often havens for wildlife. Enumerated below are some tips to keep your pond’s surroundings salamander-friendly.
- Avoid using chemicals, such as pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, or anything with toxic ingredients. Amphibians are highly sensitive to these due to their permeable skin.
- Help protect and conserve freshwater systems in your area.
- Avoid mowing the grass close to your pond and around rock and brush piles.
- Keep a close eye on your pets whenever they wander around your garden. Though your pets may inadvertently harm salamanders, keep in mind that some amphibians may secrete toxins through their skin as a deterrent to predation. These can have harmful effects on your pets.
- Do not touch salamanders or disturb known shelters.
- Spread awareness about these animals in your community. Share your desire to attract them to your pond and create zones through which they can safely pass. Teaching children about these fragile creatures will also instill a sense of care and respect for wildlife.
Benefits of Newts & Salamanders to the Environment
Newts and salamanders can serve as indicators of ecosystem health. Their absence in areas that used to serve as their habitats is a signal that conditions have thrown the ecosystem off-balance. They are important parts of both aquatic and terrestrial-based food chains as they help control and reduce the prevalence of pests, such as disease-carrying mosquitoes and insects that wipe out crops.
Living on the interface between wet and dry, salamanders ensure that energy is consistently circulated across multiple habitat types. They help regulate the build-up of nutrients in lower trophic levels. Moreover, their benefits extend into the realm of human medicine. Amphibian adaptations, such as tissue regeneration, provide vital insights into our biology.