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Warts and all

Last modified: 08 August 2014

Natterjack toad

Image: Andy Hay

RSPB Scotland is using a new technique to help work out how many natterjack toads are left in Scotland. The natterjack toad is Scotland’s rarest amphibian, found only at a few sites on the Solway coast.

The technique, developed by Dr Pete Minting of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), involves using the unique yellow stripe and patters of warts on individual toads to identify them and help monitor their population.  Dr Minting said: “Every natterjack toad, even a tiny toadlet, has a unique yellow stripe and a pattern of warts on its back. These patterns are as unique as a human fingerprint.”

The technique was used during surveys carried out at the RSPB Mersehead reserve to establish the population and status of the natterjack toad, in a partnership between RSPB and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC). 

Natterjacks have a yellow ‘racing stripe’ running down the centre of their backs with warts spread around it in a unique pattern, which does not change as the toad grows. 29 individual toads were photographed during the survey and added to a database that can now be used to monitor current and future populations.

It’s estimated there are only around 50 adult natterjack toads in total at Mersehead; however RSPB Scotland has been managing a network of artificial breeding ponds at the reserve in a bid to boost their numbers.

Natterjacks are a rare species in Scotland and live in relatively small populations in some of the UK’s least amphibian-friendly environments, like heathlands, salt marshes and dune systems; all of which are unpredictable, changeable and provide limited access to fresh water. In Scotland, natterjacks can only be found on a handful of sites on the North Solway, including Mersehead.

Despite the species developing some nifty adaptations for dealing with their difficult surroundings; natterjack tadpoles develop in just four weeks, they can dig deep burrows to protect themselves, and the males have a very loud call for attracting females, more action needs to be taken to prevent the species decline in Scotland and across the UK.

James Silvey, Nature Recovery Officer at RSPB Scotland, said: “The latest winter storms at Mersehead were some of the worst in living memory and we really weren’t sure how the natterjacks would fare. Thankfully this extensive survey has shown us that the toads are still here. During our survey we’ve been photographing each individual toad’s wart pattern on its back and have created an ID database so we can build a better picture of how many toads are actually out there. The toads we see this year might not be seen again for a number of years but by referring to our database we’ll be able to recognise them and know when and where they were last seen”.

“Even though it was great to see the toads emerge from the winter, the species is still in trouble. Fragmented habitat across their range means that local populations aren’t interacting in the way they should which means smaller populations could be lost. We may only have a small percentage of the UK’s natterjack population here in Scotland but it’s incredibly important and well worth protecting”. 

How you can help

Nature in the UK is in trouble and some of our more familiar garden species are amongst those suffering serious declines. We can all help by giving nature a home where we live.

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