I spy a newt

By Reid Tingley (University of Melbourne)

A smooth newt (Photo by Museum Victoria)

A smooth newt (Photo by Museum Victoria)

Australia has around 230 species of frog but no native salamanders (newts), though salamanders have been available as pets for many years. Well, now it seems pet salamanders have broken out with the discovery of many specimens of the European or smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) living wild in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. And that could have dire consequences for Australia’s aquatic biodiversity. The introduction and its potential consequences are discussed in a new study published in Biological Invasions.

“Some of the sites where we have detected newts are quite far apart, so we suspect that the species has spread considerably, and has established itself in more areas than our study has revealed,” says EDG researcher Dr Reid Tingley, the lead author on the paper. “The smooth newt was available in the pet trade for decades before the Victorian government declared it a ‘controlled pest animal’ in 1997. This invasion therefore likely originated from the release or escape of captive animals.”

Tingley says as this is the first newt species found in the wild in Australia, the researchers cannot yet say how widely the species will spread or what sort of impact it will have on native wildlife.

“However, based on where they live in Europe, we suspect they’re capable of persisting and reproducing in many areas of southern Australia,” says Tingley. “In Europe, smooth newts live in woodlands, meadows, and a range of disturbed habitats, and so they can easily adapt to many different types of environments.”

The smooth newt preys on invertebrates, crustaceans, and the eggs and hatchlings of frogs and fish. Closely related species to the smooth newt also carry chytrid fungus – a pathogen that has caused widespread decline in Australian frogs.

Tingley points out that the next step is to find out how far the newts have spread. “This is crucial as it’ll determine what we should do – we may be able to eradicate them if they’re in small numbers, but if they’ve spread quite far, we may have to focus on limiting them to their current extent. It’s cheaper and more effective to act quickly, rather than waiting to see what their impact will be.”


More info: Reid Tingley reid.tingley@unimelb.edu.au 

Reference 

Tingley R, AR Weeks, AS Smart, AR van Rooyen, AP Woolnough & MA McCarthy (2014). European newts establish in Australia, marking the arrival of a new amphibian order. Biological Invasions http://bit.ly/1kRw59K 

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