The Montseny newt and the delicate nature of local ecosystems

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The Montseny brook newt (Calotriton arnoldi) is a very recent discovery. First identified in 1979, biologists only formally described it as a new species in 2005. It’s now known to have inhabited the Montseny area in Catalonia for at least 1 million years. LIFE Tritó Montseny is working to improve the conservation status of this amphibian by carrying out a captive breeding programme and by reversing the threats to its habitat.

The Montseny brook newt is a critically endangered species. Fewer than 1 500 adults populate an area of only 8km2, and numbers continue to decrease.

Remote but still threatened

The newt is a completely aquatic species – all of the major stages of its life take place in water. It needs pristine environmental conditions to survive, including highly oxygenated flowing water, and so the presence of a viable population is an indication that its habitat is ecologically valuable. The Montseny brook newt’s habitat is found in the UNESCO protected area of the Montseny Massif.

But despite the remote location and protected status, human activity and climate change pose grave threats. Diminishing water levels and poorer water quality in the newt’s native streams are the most urgent. These are caused by factors including

  • water extraction for bottled drinking water
  • forestry activities which drain water levels, change water flows and reduce crucial summer-time tree cover
  • increasing periods of drought
  • water pollution

Breeding isolated populations

Even within the Montseny brook newt’s tiny range, natural barriers exist which split the species and add to its fragility. Separate eastern and western populations are believed to have been formed during the ice age around 250 000 years ago, when changes in the landscape displaced the populations. Since they are geographically isolated and have no crossover in the wild, it’s crucial to maintain that isolation within a captive breeding programme.

The Centre de Fauna de Torreferrussa in Catalonia was the first conservation centre to breed the species in captivity, supporting this programme since 2007. During the current LIFE project’s life time, it has expanded to other centres: Barcelona Zoo, Chester Zoo (UK) and Pont de Suert Fauna centre.

The breeding programme originated with specimens from both populations – 6 males and 6 females from the eastern population, and 5 males and 5 females from the western population.

Over 300 newts per year have been bred for reintroduction from the original individuals, with almost 500 from the western population and over 200 from the eastern population released. Introducing these individuals reinforces natural populations and provides a viable genetic reserve.

In February 2019, the project moved 36 newts from Torreferrussa to Barcelona. “We exchange parents between breeding centres – after a strict biosecurity control”, says Daniel Guinart Sureda, technical coordinator of the project. “We noticed we needed to reinforce some genetic lines which weren’t represented by parental individuals in Barcelona Zoo.”

Biologists from the Parc Natural del Montseny use software to guide which mating pairs will create the optimal genetic variability. They then release captive-bred individuals into areas outside the range of the wild population. This makes it easier to assess how viable these new individuals are in their habitat.

Sustainable water and land management

Since the Montseny brook newt is exclusively water-based, managing water levels is key to habitat improvements. The team has installed sensors in streams to measure water pressure and temperature, and this is used both to monitor the wild habitat and to help recreate optimal conditions for the captive breeding programme.

Connecting water bodies and maintaining river banks are crucial. Man-made changes to the forest from roads and paths or commercial plantations replacing indigenous trees all undermine the newt’s habitat by increasing soil erosion on banks – known as riparian zones – and increasing barriers in streams.

LIFE Tritó Montseny has benefitted from the experience of other LIFE projects working on hydrology and conservation actions, including Catalunya PirosLIFE, LimnoPirineus which are both active in the Pyrenees and the Finnish project Hydrology LIFE.

Changing how natural resources from the woodland are used is also a key goal of the project. Part of this process involves working with landowners on compensation for land use rights in exchange for sustainable land use.

Local interest

Over 1 500 people have visited an information exhibition doing the rounds in municipalities in the Montseny area, with a follow-up already planned. This is helping locals to understand the importance of using natural resources sustainably. “We’ve found that children themselves pass on what they’ve learned to their parents”, said Mr Guinart Sureda. “It’s young people who will be Montseny’s next professionals, who will exploit its natural resources or suffer from the consequences of climate change. They are the ones who have to be aware that it is possible to preserve the Montseny brook newt and its habitat if good environmental practices are applied.”

Seeking surer legal status

Beyond conservation practices, LIFE Tritó Montseny is working on legal coverage for the Montseny brook newt and its habitat, by drawing up a plan to add the habitat to the EU Habitats Directive. This would be a sound basis for effective conservation policies and environmental management.

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