Crowdfunding for chytrid

Some of you may be aware that we have been crowdfunding in order to help pay for the analysis of our chytrid swabs from the midwife toads. We reached our target over the weekend and since  we’ve still got over a week to go until the crowdfunder ends – we’ve added some ‘Stretch Targets’. People can still pledge money towards the project and our added targets include further costs that we didn’t initially think of such as postage and equipment such as gloves.

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Members of the team swabbing a midwife toad for the chytrid fungus

We have been blown away by the response and support we have received from everyone. I’d like to take this time to thank all of our backers for helping make this important work become a reality.

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Stories from Singapore

On 22nd September, Noel Thomas from Singapore visited Cambridge to present a talk for CPARG members and interested members of the public. Noel’s talk was titled ‘The Herpetological Chronicles – Of Kings and Dragons’, which highlighted the herpetofauna of Singapore as well as some other locations in south-east Asia Noel has carried out research. The talk was well attended and quite informal meaning lots of questions were asked along the way.o 

Noel introduces his talk


We’re currently putting our winter talk program together so please keep an eye out for updates. We’d like to thank Anglia Ruskin University for hosting the event and to Noel for agreeing to present a talk for us. 

Toad Ladder Updates

You may have heard on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, read in the Cambridge Independent or perhaps even read our previous blog but we’ve recently installed some toad ladders into some gully pots in central Cambridge. These were timed too late to catch the initial migration (due to dispatch problems) but they were well timed for the summer migration and the dispersal of this years young. Adults and young alike used the ladders when they fell into gully pots as they dispersed into the surrounding area to forage and prepare for the forthcoming winter ahead.

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Toad ladder in a local gully pot with a high level of debris build up

The ladders installed for a short trial period to see how effective they are at preventing toads from drowning within the bottom of gullies. This time was also used to test how they affected the drainage of the gullies, thankfully they had a minimal effect. They proved quite effective at saving toads and we’re happy to say that once they have undergone some light maintenance, they will be reinstalled in the gully pots ready for the toad migration next February. If you’d like to get involved with the monitoring of toads and our toad ladders then please get in touch by emailing candparg@gmail.com.

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Aunald removes a toad ladder from a gully pot, next to him are a stack removed from other gullies

Thanks must be paid to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Biodiversity Partnership for helping to fund this ongoing project.

Images © Steven Allain

Successful slow worm surveys

Some of you may be aware that we are currently running a project to monitor a population of slow worms (Anguis fragilis) at Wandlebury Country Park. We conducted a number of regular surveys from late spring until early summer during which time we came across only a small number of slow worms. Surveys were then started again this week in the hope of finding this summer’s young. We were blown away by the number of slow worms encountered on our most recent survey and we hope to find just as many in subsequent surveys. When the project is complete we intend to produce an indepth report on our findings. Thank you to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Biodiversity Partnership for funding our work!

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A young slow worm from one of our surveys

CPARG at The Big Wednesday

On Wednesday 2nd August CPARG were present at The Big Wednesday on Coldham’s Common, a day that is designed for children and families to have fun in the middle of the summer. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our side and after a couple of hours, the heavens opened and everyone decided to call it a day and head home. For the time we were presenting our stand, we interacted with a number of local residents regarding amphibian and reptile conservation. Some of these were very enthusiastic including a number of younger members of the public which hopefully will become future herpetologists. We’ve been slowly fine tuning the materials we hand out at events such as this to help maximise feedback from the public. Hopefully a number of the people we spoke with will be in touch soon!

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Aunald with the CPARG stand at The Big Wednesday

‘New’ grass snake species found in the UK

Recently there has been a lot of confusion about the results reported in this interesting piece of research regarding grass snakes. This confusion has been spread by media outlets such as the BBC who have unfortunately misinterpreted the results so I thought I’d write a short summary to help clear things up as I too was a little confused in the beginning. It’s important to note that the grass snake we have here in the UK is the Western grass snake (Natrix natrix helvetica) which until now has been it’s own subspecies. The Western grass snake can also be found in countries such as Western Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy.

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The humble grass snake (Natrix natrix) has recently been reclassified as Natrix helvetica following new molecular evidence

In their research the German researchers found that Western grass snakes (Natrix natrix helvetica) meet Eastern grass snakes (Natrix natrix natrix) along a very narrow contact zone, with very limited genetic exchange across this zone. This was confirmed with the help of both mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA. The findings suggest that the Western barred grass snake should be regarded as a separate species and has been elevated to this level. The Western grass snake is now known as Natrix helvetica being split from the Eastern grass snake (Natrix natrix). With this new taxonomic name comes the new distinguishing common name of the barred grass snake as well.

The confusion has been caused by misinterpretation of the results. There is no “new grass snake discovered in the UK” or anywhere else. Simply put an existing and well-known form was elevated from subspecies to species level. There are still the same number of native snake species in the UK than before the paper was published – three. Everyone seems to be confused that one has had it’s scientific name changed from Natrix natrix helvetica to Natrix helvetica, based on new evidence which is how science progresses. Natrix helvetica is still the grass snake that every UK naturalist has become familiar with. In fact many naturalists are familiar with the ever changing taxonomy of species as molecular techniques have become more advanced in recent years.

I think the confusion hasn’t been helped by the fact that two species of grass snake have been reported in the ‘lowland regions of south England’. There are some introduced populations of Natrix natrix  in various locations in the UK, but they are not native and were known about beforehand and even acknowledged in the paper. Information stating that the newly distinguished barred grass snake is grey, not olive green like N. natrix and does not have the same bright yellow collar is totally incorrect. Again, N. helvetica is the same snake we’ve all come to love – it just has a shiny new name. If you’re still a little confused or perhaps even curious then please feel free to check out this blog.

© Images Steven Allain

Snake Fungal Disease found in the UK

Emerging fungal pathogens threaten species globally with one of the best known examples being the amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis). In recent years the snakes of North America have declined due to snake fungal disease caused by the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola. Symptoms of infection include skin lesions, scabs and crusty scales which may lead to death in some individuals. Until now the disease was only known from North America but recently samples from British grass snakes (Natrix natrix) between 2010-16 showed that they too were infected with the disease. We’re not sure yet how this may affect their population yet but it’s important to report any dead grass snakes you see, or any shed skins you find to the Garden Wildlife Health project in order to help paint a better picture of everything. The future is uncertain but hopefully you can help play a vital role in helping to prevent the disease from having a devastating effect on our native snake species.

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Grass snakes such as this  one are susceptible to the snake fungal disease

You can find out more about the disease and the findings by reading the scientific report here.

CPARG at the 98th Conversazione

The 16th and 17th June 2017 saw the Cambridge Natural History Society hold it’s annual Conversazione, which is now in it’s 98th year. It is a bringing together of local experts, enthusiasts and charitable organisations to share their knowledge and passion with the general public. This is the second year that CPARG has attended the event, held in the Elementary Lab at the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge. As usual, we had our familiar green display boards, information sheets and other materials available to avid herpetologists of all ages. The two day event was very engaging and we’re happy to have been able to feed the public’s curiosity for the country’s herpetofauna.

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Steven Allain and Aunald Jopling with the CPARG stand at the 98th Conversazione

If you’d like to help out at a similar event in the future then please get in touch.

Helping out at the Hobson’s Brook Bioblitz

On the 10th and 11th of June, a bioblitz was held along Hobson’s Brook in Cambridge in order to gain an understanding of the wildlife living in and around this important corridor. The section being surveyed throughout the event was between Empty Common and Nine Wells Local Nature Reserve. Our focus was at Nine Wells on the evening of the 10th, where we were helped by some volunteers whom had turned up to search for reptiles and amphibians. Nine Wells contains a number of chalk wells which feed the conduit. Unfortunately due to the time of our surveys, we were unable to find any amphibians or reptiles. We are committed to returning in the spring now we are more familiar with the site. 

Mark Goodman moves logs as eager volunteers keep an look out for amphibians and reptiles which may be hiding beneath

Palmate newts in Cambridge

One widespread species of amphibian we don’t often come across in Cambridgeshire in the palmate newt (Lissotriton helveticus). The closely allied smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) is very common across the county being present in garden ponds and nature reserves alike. Something which may explain the lack of palmate newts in Cambridgeshire is their habitat preferences. Contrary to popular belief, newts spend most of the year on land and only return to ponds to breed in the spring. This means that the terrestrial environment is just as important as the breeding habitat (something which is often overlooked). Palmate newts prefer heathland, moorland and bogland as they have an affinity for shallow ponds in acidic soils.

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The palmate newt’s tail filament – a diagnostic feature

Cambridgeshire just doesn’t meet these habitat requirements, except for a few rare places where palmate newts do exist. Whilst carrying out surveys to study the Cambridge population of midwife toads we accidentally stumbled upon three palmate newts in one of the garden ponds. The individuals were caught whilst pond netting to see if midwife toad tadpoles were present. To our surprise, the newts we’d caught weren’t smooth newts but instead palmate newts – a first for the area. Across a couple of visits we’ve now identified two ponds where up to 6 palmate newts have been seen – this of course isn’t the full extent of the population but it is a good start for follow up surveys.

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The lack of pigmentation on the throat is another diagnostic identification feature for palmate newts

We’ll of course keep you all up to date on how the project progresses and if you’ve seen a palmate newt or another reptile/amphibian species then please record them here.

All images © Steven Allain