Amphibians of the British Isles: how to identify different species, and how to help them
There are several native and non-native species of amphibians found in the UK. Learn about the different species, how to identify them, and how to help them.
Amphibians have been around for a long time – they were the first back-boned animals to walk the Earth. Their survival up to now shows how perfectly they have evolved to fit within ecosystems, and how sorely they would be missed if they were allowed to disappear for ever.
There are three types of amphibian found in the UK and wider British Isles – frogs, toads, and newts. The types of amphibians not found in the UK are the caeclilians, and the non-newt salamanders.
There’s little to match the bright orange belly of a great crested newt or the fiery golden eyes of a common toad. With the right conditions in your garden, you can get up close with these animals, and in the case of amphibians watch one of nature’s complex lifecycles unfold right under your nose!
How to help amphibians
Many of the places in which frogs, toads, newts and reptiles thrive have disappeared. The intensification of agriculture and building development have caused the disappearance of ponds, hedgerows, heathland, dunes, grassland and scrub.
By making small- or large-scale changes to your garden, you can encourage herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) to seek refuge there. The most likely species to spot in a garden are: common frog, common toad, and the three newt species.
Adding ponds (for amphibians) or compost heaps (for slow worms and grass snakes) can even result in some species breeding in your garden.
Learn how to undertake a Garden Dragon Watch survey for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, which will help the charity map garden amphibians and reptiles and inform their conservation work.
Learn more about helping herpetofauna:
- How to build and care for your wildlife pond
- How you can help hibernating amphibians
- How to make a frog hibernaculum
- How to make a reptile rockery
Frog species of the British Isles
There are two native species of frog found in the UK and the British Isles – the recognisable and well-known common frog, and the rarer and reintroduced northern pool frog. There are also three non-native species – the marsh frog, the edible frog, and the bull frog. Of the three, only the first two have established populations in the wild, the bull frog is more sporadic but complete eradication is deemed essential by conservationists.
Common frog (Rana temporaria)
Possibly our most familiar amphibian, the common frog is distributed throughout Britain and Ireland, and much of northern Europe, they can be found in almost any habitat where there are suitable breeding ponds.
They are generally a shade of olive-green or brown, with a dark patch (or ‘mask’) behind the eyes. Frogs often have bands of darker striping on the back legs.
Many individuals have irregular dark markings on the back but colouration is extremely variable: yellow, pink, red, orange and black individuals are often reported.
Northern clade pool frog (Pelophylax lessonae)
Usually just called pool frog in the UK, the northern clade pool frog is one of our most endangered amphibians. The last remaining pool frog colony at Thompson Common in Norfolk was considered officially extinct by 1995. Unfortunately, the species was not understood to be native to England until the mid 1990s, just as it disappeared.
In the mid-2000s, a team of conservationists led by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and Natural England reintroduced pool frogs to England following a thorough assessment.
Northern pool frogs are predominantly brown in colour with darker blotches, and a light yellow or green stripe along the back.
They are similar in size to common frogs, and as with that species, male pool frogs are slightly smaller than female pool frogs. Pool frogs also have more pointed heads and longer legs than common frogs.
Marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibundus)
As their name suggests, marsh frogs prefer marsh habitats and are resilient to brackish water making them suitably adapted for salt marshes. They’re also highly adaptable and bask in the sun, so may be seen along agricultural irrigation ditches or other similar linear features.
Marsh frogs are Europe’s largest native frog species, however they are not native to the UK. They were introduced to the UK during the last century. Marsh frogs are now predominantly found in south-east England, having expanded from their original introduction site in Kent to the surrounding counties. Other populations can be found in Essex, Norfolk, Devon, Bristol, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, as well as elsewhere in the UK.
The impacts of marsh frogs are not currently known but likely include predation of native species as well as acting as a disease vector. Most known populations have been found to be expanding their range which means they are increasingly likely to come into contact with vulnerable native species.
Edible frog (Pelophylax esculentus)
The edible frog is a naturally occurring fertile hybrid of the pool and marsh frog, which reproduces via hybridogenesis. It was introduced in southern England, and can now be found in East Anglia and south-eastern England.
Bull frog (Lithobates catesbeianus)
The bull frog’s distribution in the UK is extremely sporadic, but it has been known to breed in the wild which is of grave concern. Releases can be accidental or deliberate. The bull frog grows up to 25cm in length, and the call of the males is unmistakable.
Toad species of the British Isles
As with the frogs, there are two native species of toad found in the UK and British Isles – the common toad, and the much rarer natterjack toad. There are also two non-native toad species – the midwife toad, which has a few colonies in the wild, and the African clawed toad, which is not yet known to breed in the wild in the UK.
Common toad (Bufo bufo)
Common toads can be found all over mainland Britain, but not in Ireland or mountains. As the name suggest, they are common in gardens and countryside, including woodland.
Compared to frogs, their skin is warty and dry. It is more waterproof than frogs’, so toads can survive in drier places. They can vary in colour from olive-brown to green, and a key identification feature is the prominent raised glands on its shoulders and neck. These exude a mild toxin, while skin glands are distasteful to predators. Common toads usually crawl, and if they jump at all, it will be less than the length of their bodies.
Natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita)
Natterjack toads are distinctive, charismatic little animals, smaller than common toads. They have a thin yellow stripe down their back and because they have short legs, they walk rather than hop.
In the spring, male natterjack toads call to attract females – this rasping sound can be heard up to a mile away! Natterjack toads are the UK’s loudest amphibian.
Sadly natterjack toads now exist at only around 50 sites across the UK, including sand dunes in East Anglia, north-west England, and the Solway Firth in Scotland, northwestern salt marshes, and on heathlands in Surrey and Hampshire.
Midwife toad (Alytes obstetricans)
Although it’s unknown how many midwife toad colonies exist, it’s thought that there are a few still in the wild in the UK. They were introduced in the late 1800s into a Bedfordshire expanded. They don’t seem to have too much of an effect on native wildlife.
The species is quite small, and known by the alternative name of bell toad, named after the males’ bell-like tone. The midwife of the pair is the male, who wraps the fertilised eggs around his hind limbs and carry them around until they are ready to hatch.
African clawed toad (Xenopus laevis)
The African clawed toad hasn’t been recorded breeding in the UK, but occasional escapes have occurred from laboratories on the Isle of Wight and South Wales. It is native to parts of Africa, and is present in the UK due to its use in pregnancy tests.
The African clawed toad is quite unusual in that it is almost completely aquatic.
Newts of the British Isles
There are three native species of amphibian found in the UK and the British Isles – the smooth newt, the palmate newt and the great crested newt. All three species are widespread, but only one – the smooth newt – is present in Ireland. Two non-native newt species can also be found in the wild.
Smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)
The smooth newt is the UK’s most widespread newt species, found throughout Britain and Ireland, and is very similar to the palmate newt. The spots on the throat provide a good way of telling this species apart from the palmate newt (which lacks spots on its throat).
Palmate newt (Lissotriton helveticus)
Similar in size and colour to the smooth newt, the palmate newt seems able to withstand dryer conditions than the smooth newt and are often found further from water during their terrestrial phase. It is absent from Ireland.
Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus)
This charismatic animal is the largest of our three native newts, both in length and width – and is very different from the smaller newts (palmate and smooth newts).
Great crested newts look black or dark brown with obvious warts with white stippling on their flanks (giving rise to their other name of ‘warty newt’), as well as large black irregular spots, which extend onto their magnificent yellow-orange bellies.
Male great crested newts develop a striking jagged crest in the spring, running along the back, which dips and then continues onto the tail (but in a smoother fashion). The tail is also quite fleshy with an obvious blue or whitish flash in the centre, which is sometimes all you see of the animal when peering into a well vegetated pond at night.
Females lack the crest of the male, but have a yellow/orange stripe running along the underside of the tail, and both sexes also have black and yellow stripy feet, so all in all this species is very distinctive.
Great crested newts have a widespread distribution throughout much of lowland England with a more restricted distribution in Wales and Scotland. The species is absent from Ireland. Significantly, the British great crested newt population is important at the European level, where the species is also experiencing declines.
Italian crested newt (Triturus carnifex)
The Italian crested newt was once thought to be a sub-species of the great crested newt, but is now deemed to be a separate species. The two species do interbreed if they live in the same habitat. Distinguishing it from the great crested newt can be difficult, characteristics to look out for include very little (often none) white stippling on the flanks, a somewhat smoother skin and the presence of a yellow or reddish vertebral line in juveniles and females.
This species has appeared in the UK largely as escapees from captive populations. It is widespread in the south of England but fortunately not common.
Alpine newt (Mesotriton alepestris)
Similar in size to the smooth and palmate newt, when the alpine newt does escape from activity into the wild in the UK, it seems to thrive. The species isn’t common in the UK, but does appear to be widespread.
The alpine newt can be easily identified as it is very dark, frequently black in colour with a blueish tint. It has a bright red underside and some specimens have a suggestion of a red vertebral stripe.
Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC) is a wildlife charity committed to conserving amphibians and reptiles, and saving the disappearing habitats on which they depend.