In search of the Pyrenean newt

Why am I at the top of a mountain in a thunder storm holding a 2 metre-long piece of metal? Well, what else would you do on holiday? SNH’s David O’Brien reveals more.

Pyrenean newt. © David O'Brien

The elusive Pyrenean newt.

I’ve been working with Dr Àlex Miró for five years now. We take it in turns: one year he and his family come to the Highlands, the next I take a holiday in the Pyrenees. So now, while my wife was taking in the cultural delights of Barcelona, I was running for the shelter of a tin hut in the dark, near the summit of a mountain.

David outside his tin shelter.

David outside his tin shelter.

Àlex and I share an obsession with newts, tritons in Catalan. He’s worked with SNH on two cutting edge projects with great crested newts in the Highlands since coming to the Black Isle as possibly Scotland’s first ‘newt tourist’. Now I was working with him on a project in some of Europe’s most spectacular mountains. And getting very wet.

We’d developed a habitat model using the European standard EUNIS classification and it worked well across both countries, allowing people across Europe to understand our results. We were also keen to see if the survey techniques we used in Scotland would work here with the elusive Pyrenean newt. Once the rain eased off, and more importantly the lightning moved on, we would find out.

Heading towards the survey site near La Gallina.

Heading towards the survey site near La Gallina.

The weather didn’t seem to have disturbed the newts. In each of the ponds we surveyed, we found record numbers of the animals, over 50 in some cases. This allowed us to take genetic samples which will help us to understand the existing populations and to give a baseline to assess the effects of a programme to protect them by removing invasive minnows that were introduced in the past. The minnows prey on the newt larvae, and have also wiped out trout from fishing lakes.

The early results of the EU-funded ‘Limnopirineus Life Project’ look promising, and not only for the newts. The lakes where minnows have been removed have regained their beautiful blue colour and native wildlife is starting to return. Good news for local people and tourists too.

dusk-at-a-study-site-in-the-pyrenees

Dusk at the study site.

LimnoPirineus is a LIFE + Nature project aimed at improving the conservation status of species and aquatic habitats of European interest in the high mountains of the Pyrenees. The project is financed jointly by the EU LIFE + program that promotes conservation actions and recovery of habitats and species of flora and fauna in protected areas of the European Union, integrated into the Natura 2000 network. For more information about the project, go to the website.

All images © Àlex Miró except for Dusk at the study site: © David O’Brien

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