Con­serv­ing the Cata­lan newt

Sur­viv­ing in only a few Cat­alo­nian moun­tain streams, the Montseny brook newt is in such des­per­ate trou­ble that the fight to save it has just gone in­ter­na­tional

World of Animals - - What’s Inside... - Words Vic­to­ria Wil­liams

Learn all about the fight to save the Montseny brook newt

In the rugged lands 75 kilo­me­tres (46.6 miles) out­side of the an­cient city of Barcelona looms the Montseny Mas­sif, a Cat­alo­nian moun­tain range home to one of the most en­dan­gered species in Europe and one of the most en­dan­gered am­phib­ians in the world. All the re­main­ing Montseny brook newts live in a hand­ful of cold moun­tain streams be­tween 600 and 1,200 me­tres (1,968.5 to 3,937 feet) above sea level in an area about twice the size of New York’s Cen­tral Park.

Adapted to life in fast-flow­ing wa­ter, the newts have flat­tened bod­ies and strong grip­ping fin­gers so they can crawl into crevices and avoid be­ing swept away. Sci­en­tists have never seen eggs in the wild, but they think that fe­males lay them un­der rocks to make sure they stay in one place. Brown backs cam­ou­flage the Montseny newt against rocks and de­bris in the streams, but should a preda­tor man­age to spot them, they’re armed with a de­fence mech­a­nism; when dis­tressed, they se­crete a foulsmelling, nox­ious white sub­stance.

Montseny brook newts slipped un­der the radar for a long time, thought for decades to be the same an­i­mal as the Pyre­nean brook sala­man­der. It wasn’t un­til 2005 that they were for­mally de­scribed to sci­ence as a sep­a­rate

“We hope the pro­gramme will go from strength to strength and that

we can create a much brighter out­look for these won­der­ful an­i­mals”

species and recog­nised as Cat­alo­nia’s only en­demic ver­te­brate. They were first as­sessed by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN) in 2008 and im­me­di­ately joined the list of the world’s crit­i­cally en­dan­gered an­i­mals.

There are thought to be fewer than 1,500 of the newts re­main­ing in the wild. Part of the prob­lem is the fact that Montseny newts have a hard time find­ing love; they’ve never been seen out of the wa­ter, so ex­perts think the only way they can find oth­ers is to travel up and down the streams and trib­u­taries in the hope of a chance meet­ing.

In case this didn’t make their prospects bleak enough, con­di­tions are chang­ing in the moun­tain range. The newts have evolved liv­ing in cold­wa­ter streams run­ning through wood­land, but the beech tree line has shifted fur­ther up the moun­tains over the last cen­tury be­cause of warmer tem­per­a­tures, re­placed by holm oak for­est in some lower parts of the newt’s al­ti­tude range. Wa­ter is also be­ing ex­tracted from the streams to be bot­tled and sold for drink­ing, caus­ing some of the wa­ter­ways to dry up. With such a small range any­way, the loss of streams makes it even more dif­fi­cult for the newts to sur­vive and find mates to re­pro­duce with.

Dr Ger­ardo Gar­cia, cu­ra­tor of lower ver­te­brates and in­ver­te­brates at Chester Zoo, ex­plains the ur­gency of the newts’ sit­u­a­tion. “The Montseny newt is tee­ter­ing per­ilously close to the brink of ex­tinc­tion and re­quires im­me­di­ate ac­tion if we are to es­tab­lish more num­bers and save them. The newts are adapted to cold moun­tain streams and re­quire pris­tine habi­tat but, sadly, they are af­fected

“The Montseny newt is tee­ter­ing per­ilously close to the brink of ex­tinc­tion and re­quires im­me­di­ate ac­tion to save them”

by prob­lems linked to cli­mate change, such as ris­ing tem­per­a­tures and de­creas­ing wa­ter re­sources and hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties like de­for­esta­tion.”

Ex­perts at Chester Zoo have now joined the grow­ing team of con­ser­va­tion­ists try­ing to pre­serve the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species be­fore it’s too late. They’ve taken on a big chal­lenge: breed­ing Montseny brook newts in cap­tiv­ity in a bid to re­store their num­bers. The breed­ing pro­gramme at Chester Zoo is the only in­stance of a Montseny newt be­ing kept or bred out­side of Cat­alo­nia. In a pur­pose-built fa­cil­ity, 12 pairs of newts brought over from the Tor­referussa Wildlife Cen­tre in Spain are be­ing cared for and bred, and the hard work seems to be pay­ing off; twelve young newts have al­ready hatched at the zoo and will be re­leased into the moun­tain streams back in Cat­alo­nia. Af­ter com­plex courtship fe­males can lay up to

40 eggs a year, so the pairs at Chester and their off­spring could make a cru­cial dif­fer­ence to the species.

Dr Gar­cia be­lieves the pro­gramme could help to res­cue the Montseny newt. “Thank­fully, vi­tal con­ser­va­tion work to pro­tect the species’ habi­tat is now on­go­ing and a con­ser­va­tion breed­ing pro­gramme, which we’re now part of, is en­sur­ing there’s a ge­net­i­cally vi­able pop­u­la­tion of newts that can be rein­tro­duced to the wild. Grow­ing up, I spent time in the moun­tain forests around Barcelona where the newts are found and so to now be part of the ef­forts to save them is a real hon­our. The moun­tains are where my jour­ney as a con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist be­gan and so, many years on, for the team and I to be able to use our skills and ex­per­tise to help save a species that lives there is hugely im­por­tant.”

Chester Zoo is well known around the world for its rep­tile and am­phib­ian con­ser­va­tion, and it’s the first non-Span­ish or­gan­i­sa­tion to join the ef­forts to pro­tect the newt. Within the newt’s na­tive re­gion, in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing Barcelona Zoo, the Barcelona Provin­cial Coun­cil and the gov­ern­ment’s Depart­ment of Ter­ri­tory and Sus­tain­abil­ity have been try­ing for years to boost the wild pop­u­la­tion

and se­cure its fu­ture. Francesc Car­bonell Buira, a bi­ol­o­gist for the Gov­ern­ment of Cat­alo­nia, ex­plains the con­ser­va­tion work that has al­ready gone on and the im­por­tance of Chester Zoo’s con­tri­bu­tion to the project.

“This is a species that had gone un­no­ticed by sci­en­tists un­til the late 1980s. A pop­u­la­tion dis­ap­peared late last cen­tury and, al­though some are cur­rently sta­ble, some are in a very un­favourable state of con­ser­va­tion. That’s why sev­eral ad­min­is­tra­tions have come to­gether to im­prove their con­ser­va­tion sta­tus – both through work in the wild and through a breed­ing pro­gramme.

“So far, over the ten years it has been up and run­ning, more than 2,000 Montseny brook newts have been raised and four new pop­u­la­tions cre­ated. Now Chester Zoo is on board, given its enor­mous ex­pe­ri­ence in breed­ing threat­ened am­phib­ian species, we hope the pro­gramme will go from strength to strength and that we can create a much brighter out­look for these won­der­ful an­i­mals.”

The Montseny Mas­sif is a UN­ESCO-des­ig­nated bio­sphere re­serve and was named a pro­tected nat­u­ral park by the gov­ern­ment of Cat­alo­nia in 1978, al­though this pro­tec­tion wasn’t given to save the newts. To im­prove the sur­vival chances of the ex­ist­ing pop­u­la­tion and the re­leased cap­tive-bred newts, ex­perts in­volved in the re­cov­ery plan are also try­ing to im­prove the stream habi­tat in the Montseny Moun­tains. The newts are very sen­si­tive to en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, so bet­ter wa­ter qual­ity will help to keep them healthy and per­haps even al­low the pop­u­la­tion to grow and be­come more sta­ble.

The Montseny brook newt is a species star­ing ex­tinc­tion in the face and bat­tling a long list of chal­lenges. Luck­ily, it’s quickly gone from an un­known an­i­mal to the fo­cus of a de­ter­mined col­lab­o­ra­tive res­cue plan, so there’s still a chance that one day the streams of Montseny will be home to a thriv­ing newt pop­u­la­tion.

left Mat­ing is an elaborate process for newts, with the pair twist­ing around each other be­fore the male de­posits a sperm packet for the fe­male to pick up

ABoVe Small lungs and spe­cial grips on their fin­ger­tips en­able the newts to live to­tally aquatic lives

Dark brown bod­ies and flat­tened heads make the newts hard to spot against rocks and leaf lit­ter

Be­low A new fa­cil­ity has been built es­pe­cially for the newts away from the other am­phib­ians at the zoo

Spain Montseny Mas­sif

The newts have a tiny nat­u­ral range, liv­ing in a hand­ful of streams in the north­east cor­ner of Spain

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