Back in May this year I visited the New Forest Reptile Centre (Holidays Hill, near Lyndhurst, New Forest National Park, Hampshire, UK). I’ve been meaning to visit for a long time – I think I last went there some time during the late 1990s – and the very hot and sunny weather meant that it was a great day to go look at reptiles. This article is mostly a brief showcasing of various of my (poor) photos, but I figure I may as well share them, in part to help make the place better known. Some of the text used here is recycled from old Tet Zoo articles.

Anyway, if you’re a British herp nerd, the New Forest Reptile Centre is definitely worth a visit. If you’re not... well, it’s still worth a look. If you’re lucky, you can see all native British reptile species there in the one visit (how lucky was I? Read on). There are a few amphibians as well. Admission is free: there is a small charge for parking, but that’s it. The site isn’t large – you can look at everything in less than an hour, should you wish – and the animals are contained within ten (or so) concrete-walled enclosures, or ‘pods’. There are bird-themed things to look at as well (including a raptor nest-cam).

The 'pods' are mini habitat biomes, nicely landscaped and enclosing microhabitats tailored for the respective species. Let’s look at some of the animals…

Emma (my daughter) was particularly taken with this apparently bold and tame Viviparous (= Common) lizard Zootoca vivipara that spent ages climbing round the netting on the top of the enclosure. The Viviparous lizard is a northern specialist of temperate and even Arctic places. It has a tremendously wide distribution, occurring from western Europe all the way east to the coast of the Pacific. It occurs throughout Britain, being most easily found in upland moors, heathland, cliff edges, sand dunes, and uncultivated field edges, roadsides, railway embankments and gardens. In gardens, members of the species are heavily predated upon by domestic cats and, believe it or not, by Blackbirds Turdus merula. Viviparous lizards are variable in colour, usually have a brightly coloured underside, and are born black and – despite being born live – still bearing an egg-tooth.

You might know of the Viviparous lizard as Lacerta vivipara. However, Mayer & Bischoff (1996) argued that the traditionally conceived version of the genus Lacerta is polyphyletic on a semi-industrial scale and hence that all those lineages not grouping together with Lacerta sensu stricto (L. agilis and close kin) need to be removed and given their own generic names. This rampant non-monophyly of traditional ‘Lacerta’ has been quite widely recognised (e.g., Arnold 1989, Fu 1998, 2000). As is so often the case, names already exist for many of the respective lineages, so it isn’t that ‘new’ names are in need of creation; rather, old ones have been resurrected from synonomy. Indeed, Zootoca itself isn’t a new name, but was coined by Wagler in 1830.

Here’s another native British lizard – this time a female Sand lizard L. agilis (a 'proper' member - the 'proper' member - of Lacerta). I saw two females, but no males, unfortunately. And, yes, this fat, (comparatively) slow, short-limbed lizard is stupidly named Lacerta agilis. Good work, Carl. Sand lizards are not uncommon on the European continent (from France eastwards into Asia), but in Britain native populations are restricted to fragile heathland sites in Dorset, Surrey and Merseyside and many colonies are known to have gone extinct. There are, however, reintroduced populations in numerous other places, including south-west and south-east England, Wales and Scotland (Beebee & Griffiths 2000).

This, of course, is one of those goddam Western Palaearctic water frogs (Pelophylax). Which one? As you might recall from the article I published about these frogs back in July 2011, working that out can be tricky. Actually, I think this is a Marsh frog P. ridibundus, a large, comparatively long-legged member of the group that has been widely introduced across south-eastern England. A smaller, shorted-legged species, the Pool frog P. lessonae, was long thought to be an alien species to the UK but is now known – thanks to fossils – to be a native that we carelessly allowed to go extinct (consequently, Scandinavian Pool frogs are now being reintroduced to the country).

While I didn’t get good photos of all of them, at the end of my visit I had seen Viviparous lizard, Sand lizard, Adder Vipera berus and Grass snake Natrix natrix. No Slow-worm Anguis fragilis – unsurprising because they’re semi-fossorial and generally spend the daytime hiding beneath cover – and no Smooth snake Coronella austriaca. Frustrating, since Smooth snakes are neat. Constricting, viviparous colubrids. Yes, in Britain, I kid you not. So, four out of six species. This doesn’t count the non-natives, of which we have a few.

On the subject of those, I’ve been meaning for a long time to revisit the whole Western green lizard L. bilienata issue (yes, green lizards are close relatives of L. agilis and hence 'proper' members of Lacerta as well).

A famous breeding colony of these large and beautiful lacertid lizards is established at Boscombe in Bournemouth (Dorset, southern England), and – if you know where to look – it’s very easy to find them. The colony was only officially ‘discovered’ in July 2002 when local herpetologist Chris Gleed-Owen noticed it while on his way to work one morning (Gleed-Owen 2003, Naish 2010); apparently the lizards were illegally dumped. I’ve had close encounters with several individuals, and here’s one of the closest (thanks to Jon McGowan for the photo: more here, on Jon's blog). Did it hurt? I’ve been bitten by lots of animals now [some evidence] and the answer is: bloody yes, it did... disproportionately so, given the animal’s size.

The New Forest Reptile Centre's website is here. For previous Tet Zoo articles on European reptiles (and amphibians), see...

Refs – -

Arnold, E. N. 1989. Towards a phylogeny and biogeography of the Lacertidae: relationships within an Old-World family of lizards derived from morphology. Bulletin of British Museum of Natural History (Zoology) 55, 209-257.

Beebee, T. & Griffiths, R. 2000. Amphibians and Reptiles. HarperCollins, London.

Gleed-Owen, C. P. 2004. Green lizards and Wall lizards on Bournemouth Cliffs. Herpetological Bulletin 88, 3-7.

Fu, J. 1998. Toward the phylogeny of the family Lacertidae: implications from mitochondrial DNA 12S and 16S gene sequences (Reptilia: Squamata). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 9, 118-130.

- . 2000. Toward the phylogeny of the family Lacertidae – why 4708 base pairs of mtDNA sequences cannot draw the picture. Biological Journal of Linnean Society 71, 203-217.

Mayer, W. & Bischoff, W. 1996. Beiträge zur taxonomischen Revision der Gattung Lacerta (Reptilia: Lacertidae). Teil 1. Zootoca, Omanasaura, Timon und Tieraals eigenständige Gattungen. Salamandra 32, 163-170.

Naish, D. 2010. Tetrapod Zoology: Book One. CFZ Publishing, Bideford (UK).