Amphibians and Reptiles
Although we now know that amphibians and reptiles do not form a natural group amongst the vertebrates they have traditionally been studied together, with the group referred to as herptiles and their study called herpetology. As most amphibians and reptiles are 'cold-blooded', which means that they cannot regulate their body temperatures, both groups are much commoner in tropical areas, although both Common Frog and the Common Lizard can be found in northernmost Norway. Neither group are native to Shetland - the only reptiles recorded have been vagrant sea turtles and the only amphibians have been deliberately released by man.
The only reptiles recorded in Shetland are sea turtles, which are normally found in tropical oceans and only rarely wander into temperate waters. For most species, the waters around Shetland are too cold and they would be torpid by the time they reach here, but one species can regulate its body temperature enough to survive in cooler seas.
Testudines: Dermochelyidae (leatherback turtle)
Leatherback Turtle Dermochelys coriacea
Vagrant: there are 14 confirmed records involving live animals:
1955 - off Noss Head, 30th August
1956 - c.60km NE of Muckle Flugga, September
1967 - off Papa Stour, 28th August
1973 - off Skeld, 4th October
1990 - north of Fetlar, seen from fishing boat, 20th October
1992 - c.30km NNW of Muckle Flugga, early September
1992 - off Balta, Unst, 5th October
1995 - c. 30 km NW of Yell, from the Faeroese fishing boat Lomúr, 9th October
1999 - off the southern end of Bressay, between the Ord and the Bard, 8th August
1999 - between Hoga Ness and Cullivoe, Yell Sound, seen from MV Fylga, 3rd September
2000 - Basta Voe, 11th November, caught in nets, subsequently died, specimen in Lerwick Museum
2004 - off West Sandwick, Yell, 14th August
2005 - off Skelda Ness, towards Oxna, 31st July
2015 - Bluemull Sound, 13th September
Shoreline carapaces (the turtle's shell) are also occasionally recorded e.g. one was found at Sumburgh in the 1980s, a carapace was found on a beach near Punds Voe, Scalloway on 12th October 1996, and individuals were found dead at Dale beach at Walls in January 2002 and Nibon in April 2011. The Scottish Marine Animals Stranding Scheme has three other records but it is not known if these records refer to live animals or corpses - south-west of Mousa on 9th August 1971, Scalloway on 7th November 1996 and Sullom Voe on 18th October 1997.
Leatherback Turtles (also known as Leathery Turtles) are easily separated from other turtles through their large size and the obvious ridges running the length of the shell. They are seen quite frequently in British waters, usually in late summer, as they can regulate their body temperature and so can survive in cooler waters. They feed principally on jellyfish.
Testudines: Chelonidae (sea turtles)
Loggerhead Turtle Caretta caretta
Vagrant: two records One off the west coast of Unst in June 1945 and a corpse on Papa, in the Scalloway isles, found in August 2020.
Green Turtle Chelonia midas
Vagrant: the only record involved tideline remains, with fragments of carapace found on beach on Burra on 4th January 1956.
The only Amphibians found in Shetland have been introduced by humans.
Anura: Ranidae (true frogs)
Common Frog Rana tempooraria
Common and widespread and found on almost all inhabited islands, including Foula and Fair Isle, but absent from Out Skerries. First introduced in the 19th century, either on Whalsay in the 1860s or in the 1890s on Fetlar. Further introductions were recorded in the 1920s at Scalloway and Lerwick. The Unst population dates back to the 1970s, when spawn was brought from Mainland to the schools, and the froglets released in nearby lochans and mires.
Anura: Bufonidae (true toads)
Common Toad Bufo bufo
Extinct. Several attempts to introduce toads to the islands in the 20th century all failed. Known introductions include a few adults released on Fetlar early in the 19th century, adults from Orkney released at Tingwall in the 1930's, and tadpoles released in a garden in Lerwick in 1949-50 where, despite spawning, they only survived for one winter. There have presumably been other unrecorded releases. The two most recent reliable reports involved an adult at West Sandwick, Yell, on 26th October 1977 and a year-old individual at Strand, Tingwall, on 12th April 1982.
Written by Mike Pennington Updated August 2020
incorporating information provided by Shetland Biological Records Centre run by Shetland Amenity Trust