This Thursday the 21st is National Reptile Awareness Day, where reptile enthusiasts all over the country will be celebrating and talking all things scaly.
Herpetology is the study of both reptiles and amphibians, our four-legged tetrapods that have walked the Earth for around 400 million years and came about during the Devonian period. The Greek word ‘herpeton’ refers to a creeping animal, a term generally used to describe these cunning creatures.
Reptiles are cold-blooded vertebrates identified by their scales, leathery/hard-shelled eggs, and a bony skeleton. This includes turtles, lizards, snakes, crocodilians and even birds!
Evolution and Dinosaurs
Of course, we can’t forget dinosaurs! The ancient reptiles that dominated the land around 201 million years ago during the Jurassic period. Around 65 million years ago, most dinosaurs became extinct except for some archosaur species that included crocodiles, alligators, and “feathered dinosaurs”.
A fossil of these feathered dinosaurs is shown in the picture below, and these eventually evolved into birds. Currently, modern-day birds are a very diverse group with over 10,000 species globally.
One of the main reasons for the decline in UK reptile populations is a loss of habitat. Reptiles are terrestrial organisms that like to live in woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, and shrubs. However, due to urbanization, poor agricultural methods and pesticides, these natural areas are becoming destroyed.
Groups such as turtles and terrapins are particularly targeted by predators taking eggs from their nests as well as by humans when reptiles are trapped in fishing equipment.
Common UK Reptiles
(Scientific Name: Zootoca vivipara)
Conservation status: least concern – wide distribution, tolerates a range of habitats
Protected by national legislation
Current population trend unknown – more common in some European countries than others
Conservation actions for land and water protection
Native to Ireland. Population found in Dudley.
Habitat: Terrestrial. Forests, grasslands, wetlands
Diet: Small invertebrates
Threats: Habitat loss due to agriculture, urbanization, tourism facilities
Barred Grass Snake
(Scientific name: Natrix helvetica)
Conservation status: Lower risk/least concern
Current population trend unspecified, lack of reliable information. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
In 2017, the barred grass snake was found in the UK to be different to the grass snake found in other eastern European countries. So, it was reclassified as a separate species.
Diet: amphibians, fish, small mammals, birds, worms, tadpoles, newts.
Habitat: Terrestrial. Wetlands, dry grasslands, freshwater, farmland, damp woodlands.
Threats: Habitats in decline (egg-laying sites), amphibian prey in decline
Conservation status: Least concern – tolerates a wide range of habitats
Large global population, this varies based on country and habitat. Population is decreasing in Germany and extinct in Italy.
Protected by national legislation
Recent population declines in central England
Native to Europe.
Diet: small mammals, lizards, amphibians, birds.
Habitat: Terrestrial. Forests, grasslands, wetlands, cliffs and mountains.
Threats: Habitat loss due to urbanization, agricultural methods.
(Trachemys scripta elegans)
Conservation status: Least concern - globally widespread, tolerates a range of habitats
Native to the USA and Bermuda
Diet: Omnivorous. Insects, plants, fish.
Habitat: still and slow-flowing freshwater.
Threats: Habitat loss, crab pot trapping, nest predation, road mortality, insecticides and herbicides used around wetland habitats.
Species such as the barred grass snake sometimes lay eggs in compost heaps, as the high temperatures during decomposition make a good environment for incubation. Making your own compost heap in your garden would both provide more egg-laying sites for grass snakes and allow you the possibility of seeing a wild snake!
The adder can be susceptible to collection for the pet trade as the UK’s only venomous snake. Conservation of this species includes monitoring populations in nature reserves, habitat management as well as raising awareness of adders and what to do when you come across one. Adders are generally non-aggressive to humans, but they should be treated with respect and left alone if found.
Red-eared terrapins were transported to the UK from the USA to be used as pets in the 1980s during the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ show. They are classed as an invasive species, as they could possibly outcompete and threaten native species to the UK, and the public are encouraged not to release them into the wild.
When nearing the 5th of November, small mammals and reptiles alike are looking for a suitable habitat to hibernate in over the Winter. It is around this time people are usually building bonfires, which also make suitable woodpile homes for wildlife. For this reason, it’s best to build bonfires right before lighting them. Always check underneath your bonfire for resident wildlife!