Care of the World’s Most Colorful Mantella: A Zookeeper’s Thoughts

Long overshadowed by the wildly popular dart poison frogs, the equally tiny and beautiful mantella frogs are finally coming into their own. While most are spectacularly colored, the Baron’s Painted Mantella (Mantella baroni) seems to eclipse all others, at least in my opinion. It is also the largest species commonly available (and the second-largest known), a fact that renders it both more eye-catching and a bit easier to provide with a varied diet.

Baron's painted Mantella

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Franco Andreone

 

Description

Among the mantellas, Baron’s Painted Mantella is exceeded in size only by the Green Mantella (Mantella viridis)…but at 0.88-1.2 inches in length, it is still quite diminutive. Clad in a spectacular array of contrasting colors, with orange, black, yellow and green appearing to varying degrees on different individuals, it is well-named!

 

This species is easily confused with the Malagasy Painted Mantella (M. madagascariensis); tips and photos that will help you to distinguish the two can be found in the article linked below. Unfortunately, both species have long been imported and housed together, and hybridization has likely occurred. Both are often offered for sale as “Painted Mantellas”

 

Cowan's mantella

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Franco Andreone

Baron’s Painted Mantella is closely related to and sometimes confused with Cowan’s Mantella (M. cowani, please see photo); natural hybridization has been documented in wild populations.

 

Range and Habitat

The 16 frogs in the genus Mantella (family Mantellidae) are largely confined to Madagascar, although several species inhabit Reunion and other nearby islands. Baron’s Painted Mantella is found in eastern-central Madagascar, from Fierenana to Andringitra. Three national parks are located within its range, so some populations may be spared the declines faced by other species. However, Chytrid infections have recently been documented in Madagascar, so strict protection and captive breeding efforts are essential.

 

Habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Anlace

This species seems somewhat adaptable as to habitat, although specific populations may have evolved a dependence on local conditions. Barron’s Painted Mantellas have been found in swamp forests, stream side thickets within arid habitats, bamboo groves, rain forests, and re-vegetated agricultural areas, at elevations of 900-3,600 feet above sea level.

 

Toxins

Brilliant colors warn predators that Baron’s Painted Mantellas are protected by powerful skin toxins. Entomologists at the California Academy of Sciences have discovered that mantellas derive these toxins, or alkaloids, from their diet. A primary source of the toxins, at least for some species, is an endemic ant, Anochetus grandidieri. In an amazing example of parallel evolution, 13 of the toxic compounds found in Mantella skins are also utilized by unrelated dart poison frogs, which feed upon unrelated ants, in Panama!

 

In addition to utilizing ants as an alkaloid source, Baron’s Painted Mantella is also believed to rely upon certain mites and beetles.

 

The Terrarium

Once they have settled in, you can expect to see many interesting behaviors from Baron’s Painted Mantellas, as they are active by day, quite bold, and are always foraging, exploring, interacting, and otherwise “on the go”. They do best in terrariums stocked with live ferns, bromeliads, Philodendron and other plants. A densely-planted tank will provide you with many interesting observations, as the frogs will feel secure and behave normally.

 

A pair or trio can be kept in a 10 gallon aquarium; larger tanks can support small groups. As males defend specific territories, mixed groups must be given plenty of room and cover, and watched carefully.

 

Mantellas spend most of their time on land and drown easily. One-half inch of de-chlorinated water should be provided in a shallow bowl or sloping pool.

 

Baron’s Painted Mantellas can scale glass and will escape through even the tiniest of openings, so the terrarium’s cover must be secured with clips.

 

Substrate

A mix of top soil, coconut husk and commercial rainforest substrate works well. I like to use sheet or sphagnum moss over the substrate, to help retain moisture.

 

mediaLight

Low levels of UVB light may be of some benefit.   The Zoo Med 2.0 Low Output UVB Bulb is ideal.   UVA may help to encourage natural behaviors, including reproduction. A number of UVA-emitting bulbs are now available (please post below for further information).

 

Heat

Baron’s Painted Mantellas generally dwell at high elevations or deep within forests, and require cooler temperatures than one might expect. They fare best at 68-76 F. Most individuals become stressed when temperatures exceed 80 F, and death may occur with 2-3 days of sustained high temperatures.

 

Due to the variety of habitats and elevations to which this species has adapted, individuals originating from different areas of the range may vary in their temperature needs. Further research is needed – please post your observations below.

 

Humidity

Humidity levels of 80 -100% should be maintained by keeping the moss layer damp and spraying the terrarium heavily. Small misters are especially useful in arid homes and dry climates.

 

Feeding

A highly-varied diet is essential. Crickets alone, even if powdered with supplements, are not an adequate diet. As the Baron’s Painted Mantella is quite small, providing a proper diet requires careful planning. Monitor your frogs closely – underfed individuals will exhibit protruding hip bones and flat stomachs.

 

Aphids

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Michel Vuijlsteke

The diet should be comprised of as many of the following food items as possible (please see the articles linked below for further information on rearing and collecting small insects):

 

Tiny flies, gnats and moths

Flightless fruit flies

Pinhead/10 day old crickets

IMG_4614Hatchling mantids (see article below)

Springtails

Termites (please see article below)

Flour beetle larvae

Ants: experimenting required, as some species are rejected

Aphids: tiny insects that colonize plant stems.

Field Plankton: insects gathered by sweeping through tall grass with a net (also great fun for kids and adults alike, please see photo!)

 

Baron’s Painted Mantellas have large appetites and should be fed every day or two. A free-living Brown Mantella was observed to eat 53 ants in 30 minutes!

 

Important food supplements include Zoo Med ReptiCalcium or a similar product (most meals) and a vitamin supplement (ReptiVite with D3) 3 times weekly.

 

Breeding

Males issue their “single-click” call from concealed positions by day. Unlike most frogs, amplexus is dispensed with. The eggs, which may number over 100, are deposited on land, with the tadpoles being washed into nearby waterways by rains. Captive breeding needs more attention from private keepers and zoos – please write in for further information.

 

Handling

Baron’s Painted Mantellas are tiny, quick, and easily-stressed. They are best considered as animals to observe, not handle, and should be moved by being urged into a plastic container.

 

Individuals that feed upon typical captive diets are not likely able to synthesize skin toxins, but imported individuals will retain them for some time. Other skin secretions transferred to wounds, eyes, or the mouth may cause irritations.

 

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

Further Reading

Collecting Feeder Insects

Differentiating the Two Painted Mantellas

Turtles and Tortoises: 5 You Should Never Keep as Pets

FI WITH ALL SNAPPERSo as not to alienate the many hardcore, dedicated turtle keepers among my readers, I’ll start off by qualifying the title. I know people who do quite well with 4 of the 5 species discussed in this article. But in addition to being very well-experienced, these folks have both the financial means and space to meet the challenges posed by these unique creatures. People who, for example, keep 2,000+ individual turtles in good health and can devote entire floors of commercial warehouses or 80 privately-owned ponds to their hobby (or “obsession”, as some may say!). Of course, the turtles covered here can be kept by those of more modest means, but they are, in general, not suitable for most private collections. Please be sure to post your own thoughts and experiences concerning these and similar species below, thanks.

 

To be honest, there’s no denying the allure of large, interesting turtles, and I’ve been most fortunate in having had the chance to indulge my passion for them. My own experiences with the turtles listed below came via jobs with animal importers in NYC decades ago, and later through a career at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos. Thanks in part to a “turtle-centric” Bronx Zoo curator, the opening of a 77,000 gallon Asian river exhibit allowed me to work with large turtles on a grand scale. Another unique opportunity came in 1997, with the seizure of nearly 10,000 turtles of several species in Guangzhou, China. Many were sent to the USA, where we helped to place them in private and public collections (please see the article linked below).

 

Fly River Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Junkyardsparkle

Fly River Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta)

Unless you are another Fly River Turtle, it’s hard not to like these engaging creatures (they are notoriously aggressive towards one another). Equipped with a pig’s nose, sea turtle-like flippers and an abiding curiosity, they are among the most unique turtles one can imagine. They are also very responsive…those I cared for would swim about my legs when I entered their exhibit, soliciting food and rubbing against me. One in the Bronx Zoo’s collection is now at least 70 years of age.

 

Unfortunately, despite being protected within their native range, Fly River Turtle hatchlings are still being collected and sold. They are among the most active of the world’s turtles, and even small ones require far more room than most people can provide. Adults may top 40 lbs. in weight, and are nearly impossible to accommodate at home. They rarely stop swimming, and my group seemed crowded even in a 77,000 gallon exhibit. And despite all that space, battles were a daily occurrence – how they managed to breed I’ll never know (literally, since the eggs incubated unseen within the exhibit!). A susceptibility to fungal and bacterial infections, often centered on the carapace, adds to the difficulties involved in keeping these unusual turtles.

 

Nile Softshells

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Lena Levin

Nile Softshell Turtle (Trionx triunguis)

Although certain populations are in decline, this huge aquatic turtle has a large range, and seems to be doing well in some areas. Youngsters occasionally appear in the trade, where they are quickly snapped-up despite steep price tags.

 

All softshells are active and interesting, but the Nile may reach 4 feet in length – far too large for all but an outdoor pond in the appropriately-warm region.

 

They can be quite aggressive as well. I’ll never forget a sub-adult kept by a friend. When approached, it would paddle out to the rim of its pool and seemingly “patrol” the area, with the head held high above the surface. Further advances were met with a lightning-fast strike.

 

Spurred Tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Baseballchck02

African Spurred Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)

This is the most commonly-kept of the giant Chelonians. They differ from the others covered here in that captive born hatchlings are readily and inexpensively available. They also grow much faster – few novices can imagine that their new palm-sized pet may reach 60 pounds in weight within 5 years, and eventually top 200 pounds. Proper accommodations necessitate an outdoor enclosure in a dry, warm locale. A ½ acre exhibit proved too small for a pair of 80 pounders under my care, and they pushed through or burrowed under a surprising array of barriers.

 

African Spurred Tortoises are extremely responsive to people, being described as “dog-like” by many. But despite an innate hardiness, they have very specific dietary needs which are misunderstood by many sellers and new owners. And as you can see from the terrier-tortoise story in the article linked below, they are also very tough customers.

 

Malayan Snail-Eating Turtle (Malayemys subtrijuga)

A delicate constitution rather than large size leads me to recommend against keeping this 6 inch-long Southeast Asian beauty. Fortunately, they now rarely if ever appear in the US trade, but untold numbers are still collected for Asian food markets.

 

The Malayan Snail-Eating Turtle first caught my eye decades ago, when it sometimes showed up, unexpected and un-named, mixed in with other imports. I read what little information I could find, and did manage to induce several to feed upon the 2-3 aquatic snail species that I collected and bred for them. However, then as now, this was not enough to sustain them long term.

 

Field studies have revealed that youngsters feed largely upon two snail species. Some adults add mussels, insects, fish and other items to the diet, but even these fail to thrive in zoos or private collections. I’ve spoken with people who have kept them in seemingly perfect situations, but all wind up frustrated. I continue to look for clues to their proper husbandry…please post below if you have any insights.

 

Alligator snapping turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany

Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macroclemmys temminckii)

The old fellow I’m posing with in this article’s first photo tips the scales at 206 pounds – is there any reason to discuss why this species might not be the best choice for most folks!? Looking more dinosaur-like than even the Common Snapping Turtle, Alligator Snapper hatchlings are produced by a few private breeders. Small and sedentary, and sporting their famous “fishing lure”, it easy to see why they are so hard to resist (I feel the same about Common Snappers, and hatch eggs each year despite first doing so over 50 years ago!).

 

As this largest of the Western Hemisphere’s aquatic turtles is in dire straits in the wild, captive breeding efforts are needed – but this majestic beast is best left to those with private ponds surrounded by nesting beaches.

 

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

Further Reading

Are You Ready for an African Spurred Tortoise?

Working with the World’s Largest Freshwater Turtles

 

 

Vampire Crab Care: 2 New Land Crab Species Found Among Pet Trade Animals

Geosesarma aurantium

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Various land crabs have long been available in the pet trade, but despite their brilliant colors and fascinating behaviors, few have caught on among terrarium keepers here in the USA. This changed a bit when several spectacularly-colored species, usually sold as Vampire Crabs or Red Devils, began showing up in the early 2000’s. Recent investigations into the natural history of these crabs resulted in the surprising finding that two species new to science have been kept and bred by hobbyists for at least 10 years!

 

Halloween Crab

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by (Bhny)

 

Crabs at the Bronx Zoo

I had long urged my bosses at the Bronx Zoo to pay more attention to terrestrial crabs, especially as many do so well in large planted exhibits. I was given some latitude, and happily established colonies of “Halloween Crabs” (please see photo), “Soap Box Crabs”, various members of the family Potomonidae and Land Hermit Crabs throughout the reptile house. We even kept the massive Coconut Crab for a (too brief!) period. But the time and money needed to study them properly never materialized, and I still wonder at the identity of some that passed my way. So I was quite happy to see that interest which germinated in the pet trade has resulted in an important discovery.

 

The New Species

According to a recent article in the journal Raffles Bulletin of Zoology (V. 63:3-13; 1/2015) two previously undescribed species have been found among pet trade animals commonly sold as Vampire Crabs. They were collected on Java, and have been named Geosesarma hagen and G. dennerle. Individuals vary in coloration, but in general they are bright orange and deep purple with cream blotches, respectively. Others I’ve kept, which exhibited similar lifestyles, sported shocking yellow eyes, brilliant red claws, and jet black carapace borders.

 

Christmas Island Red Crab

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by russavia

Land Crab Diversity

As crab enthusiasts know, Indonesia’s many islands, as well as others in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, support a fantastic array of terrestrial (and marine) crabs. From the unbelievably-large Coconut Crab to the spectacular migrations of Christmas Island’s Red Crabs (please see photos), the region’s crab diversity is unmatched anywhere on earth. Some small islands support a dozen or more species, which seem to fill niches taken elsewhere by reptiles, amphibians and small mammals (or monkeys, perhaps, in the Coconut Crab’s case!).

 

As seems to be true for the newly-described Vampire Crabs, many have long been isolated from relatives, so new species almost certainly remain to be found.

 

Vampire Crab Terrariums

Vampire Crabs and their relatives do best in moist, well-planted terrariums that allow climbing and burrowing opportunities. Live carpet moss and leaf litter over a topsoil/coconut husk substrate suits them well. Philodendron, Chinese Evergreen, Pothos, Cast Iron Plants and other sturdy species will add immensely to their quality of life and your enjoyment of them. Although only a mere 0.8-1.3 inches in length, these active little fellows will do best if given plenty of room.

 

Type terrariun

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jitka Erbenov

Although said to be nocturnal in the wild, most that I’ve kept were eager to forage by day once they settled in, especially if ample cover was provided. A temperature gradient of 75-85 F, and an ambient humidity level of 70% or higher should be established. Terrarium heat pads attached to the tank’s sides and red light bulbs will assist you in heating and observing your pets after dark.

 

Diet

Most terrestrial crabs feed opportunistically on almost any organic material that comes along. However, Vampire Crabs seem more inclined to seek and chase down live prey than do many others – so much so, in fact, that they remind me of that most voracious of inshore predators, the Blue Claw Crab!

 

t204362As we do not know their exact nutritional requirements, I provide a highly-varied diet for all terrestrial crabs. Vampires will readily accept Zoo Med Hermit Crab Food and many other diets formulated for terrestrial hermit crabs, freeze dried shrimp, frozen and flake foods marketed for tropical fishes, moist algae tablets and turtle chow, small live and dead crickets, black worms and other invertebrates, and some fruits and vegetables. Calcium blocks will be used by some species, and powdered calcium should be mixed into their food as well.

 

I especially like to offer fresh leaf litter and grass clippings – all land crabs, including the popular Terrestrial Hermit Crabs, will eagerly pick through this material for small invertebrates, plant shoots, moss, lichen, decaying leaves and other tidbits that likely provide important nutrients.

A shallow bowl of de-chlorinated water should always be available for soaking and breeding purposes (please see below).

 

Some keepers report that Vampire Crabs are less inclined than others to hunt down and consume their molting tank mates (they are defenseless until the new exoskeleton hardens). I, however, have no faith in crab “sociability”, and so advise you to include deep substrate and many hiding places…along with lots of food!

 

Breeding

Unlike Coconut, Hermit and Fiddler Crabs, all of which require marine water for soaking and as a breeding site, Vampire Crabs have cut all ties with the ocean. Females carry their 20-50+ eggs about until they hatch or are ready to hatch, whereupon they are deposited in shallow pools of fresh water.

 

Crab enthusiasts will be especially happy to learn that Vampires have thoughtfully done away with the planktonic larvae that have long prevented us from breeding others in captivity. Instead, tiny, fully formed crabs (crablets?) emerge from the eggs. They are said to chase down fruit flies and springtails in adult fashion; related species under my care have accepted other typical crab foods as well.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

 

Further Reading

Coconut Crab and Land hermit Crab Care

The Best Substrate fir Terrestrial Hermit Crabs

 

The Two Toed Amphiuma: a Giant Salamander that Bites Like a Watersnake!

Toe Toed Amphiuma

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Brian Gratwicke

Although salamanders are not defenseless, herp enthusiasts tend not to give their jaws the respect we accord snakes and other reptiles. Until, that is, they tangle with an angry Two Toed Amphiuma (Amphiuma means)! At a record length of 45.6 inches, this third longest of the world’s salamanders is a major predator in the waters it inhabits, and able to bite viciously in self-defense. It is also one of the most interesting and hardy amphibians one can keep, with several longevities approaching 30 years recorded. In fact, I chose one from among literally thousands of available animals to pose with for my staff photo at the Bronx Zoo (displayed to visitors as they enter the reptile house)…and it drew as much or more attention as the more typical large constrictors and young crocs!

 

I have a deep interest in salamanders, and am especially drawn to large, aquatic species (I hope to write about my visit to Japan to see the Japanese Giant Salamander and to N. California to see Pacific Giants soon). Amphiumas are so unique and yet given so little attention that I became carried away writing about their natural history. So as not to burden my readers with an overly-long article, I’ll cover their captive care in the near future.

 

Description

Greater Siren

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Mokele

At a record length of 45.6 inches, this largest of the 3 Amphiuma species is also the world’s third longest salamander, exceeded in length only by the Chinese and Japanese Giant Salamanders, (Andrias spp.) Another aquatic native of the USA, the Greater Siren (Siren laticauda), may reach 38 inches in length, but is slimmer in build and has external gills (please see photo).

 

The body is stout but elongated and eel-like, with 4 tiny, essentially useless limbs and a laterally compressed tail. The eyes are small, lidless and covered with skin. There is an external gill slit but adults breathe via the lungs and skin. The color is uniform gray to dark brown, with occasional albinos having been found.

 

The first Amphiuma I encountered in a pet store was being sold as a “Congo Eel”. This name is rarely used today, but I have a photo of an Amphiuma labelled as such at the Bronx Zoo’s reptile house on opening day, over 100 years ago.

 

Range

The Two Toed Amphiuma is found in the Southeastern United States, along the coastal plain from eastern Virginia through the southern tip of Florida (it is absent from the Keys) and west to southeastern Louisiana.

 

Three Toed Amphiuma

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by opencage

There are 2 other species in the genus. The 12-inch-long One Toed Amphiuma (A. pholeter) is restricted to the northwestern Florida Panhandle and adjacent southeastern Alabama. The Three-toed Amphiuma (A. triadactylum, please see photo), to 42 inches long, ranges from western Alabama to eastern Texas and north to Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and southwestern Kentucky.

 

In the northeastern portion of its range, where the Two-toed Amphiuma shares its habitat with the Three-toed Amphiuma, the 2 species occasionally interbreed.

 

Habitat

Amphiumas favor shallow, heavily-vegetated, slow-moving or stagnant water bodies such as bayous, swamps, flooded meadows, drainage ditches, canals, and ponds. They are often associated with acidic waters. Although entirely aquatic, Amphiumas sometimes travel overland on wet nights. They are mainly nocturnal, and shelter by day in self-dug burrows, crayfish and muskrat tunnels, and beneath aquatic vegetation.

 

Typical habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Keith Yahl

All three Amphiuma species can aestivate by burrowing into the mud when their aquatic habitats dry out. Two-toed Amphiumas have survived for 1 year in such a state, and anecdotal evidence indicates that they may be capable of lasting for 2 or more years without food or water. They hibernate during winter in the northern portions of their ranges.

 

Reproduction

Fertilization is internal. Gravid females construct nests by evacuating depressions below logs and other cover or within muskrat burrows. The nests may be in very shallow water or on moist land – in some cases as much as 20 feet from the water’s edge. The female coils about the eggs during the 4-5 month incubation period, protecting them from predators and desiccation. It is not known if incubating females leave the eggs to feed.

 

The 30-200 eggs, which are attached to each other in string-like fashion, are deposited in June/July in the northern part of the range and in Jan. /Feb. in the south. Inundation with water may trigger hatching.

 

The larvae average 2 inches in length upon hatching and have external gills. The gills are quickly resorbed, often within 2 weeks. The larvae apparently survive on their yolk during this period. Sexual maturity is reached in 3-4 years.

 

Diet and Predators

Two-toed Amphiumas consume nearly any smaller animal that can be overcome, including frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, small snakes and turtles, fish, insects, snails, crayfish and carrion. They hunt largely by smell, and appear to have chemo-receptive glands along the body – a food item touched by any portion of the body is instantly seized.

 

Mud Snake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by John Sullivan

The Mud Snake (Farancia obscura; please see photo), and the Rainbow Snake (F. erythrogramma), appear to prey largely upon Amphiumas. They are also hunted by herons, alligators, large turtles and otters. Amphiumas have found their way into human diets, long ago among people indigenous to the American Southeast and, it is reported, more recently as well.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

Further Reading

Keeping the Greater Siren

Salamander Conservation Efforts

 

Do Newts and Salamanders Make Good Pets? Five Points to Consider

Crested Newt

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Rainer Theuer.

Despite my very wide interests (my career with animals has, quite literally, spanned ants to elephants!), I’ve always been partial to newts and salamanders. I focused on them from my earliest days working for the Bronx Zoo, and had the good fortune to author two books on their care and breeding. As pets and zoo specimens, they range from nearly impossible to keep to being among the longest lived of all captive herps (to age 50+, for the Fire and Japanese Giant Salamanders). The following points, drawn from a lifetime of working with these wonderful creatures in zoos, the field, and at home, are useful to consider before embarking on your amphibian-keeping venture.

 

Note: The terms “newt” and “salamander” do not always correspond with taxonomic relationships. All newts may be correctly called “salamanders”, but generally we consider newts to be those species that spend most of their time in water and salamanders to be more terrestrial. However, the term “salamander” is also used for many completely aquatic animals, such as the mudpuppy and hellbender…so call them what you wish!

 

As the care of different species varies greatly, please post below if you have specific questions, or would like a link to an article on a certain species.

 

Marbled Salamander

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Spacewater7

Newts and Salamanders are “Hands-Off” Pets

Fire Salamanders, Tiger Salamanders, Ribbed Newts and some others are often responsive to their owners, and will readily feed from the hand. However, they should be picked-up only when necessary, and then with wet hands. All amphibians have extremely delicate skin, and even microscopic tears will allow harmful bacteria to enter and cause havoc.

 

Also, all produce toxic secretions designed to repel predators. The toxins of several North American salamanders have caused temporary blindness when rubbed into handlers’ eyes, and the ingestion of California Newts (apparently some sort of college ritual) has resulted in fatalities. Severe irritations are to be expected if these toxins find their way onto broken skin or mucus membranes. Obviously, this is a special consideration for those with young children at home.

 

Well-cared-for newts and salamanders will reward you by exhibiting fascinating behaviors…but not if you disturb them with unnecessary handling!

 

Eastern Newt

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Brian Gratwicke

Clean Terrariums and Excellent Water Quality are Essential

Newts and salamanders absorb water through the skin, and along with that water comes any associated pollutants. The most common of these is ammonia, which is excreted with the waste products. Most newts and salamanders are as or even more sensitive to water quality than are tropical fishes, since they absorb water over a greater surface area.

 

Ammonia test kits, partial water changes and strong filtration are critical to success in keeping amphibians. Substrate needs the same attention as does water, as terrestrial species can be poisoned by ammonia-soaked moss or soil.

 

Newts and Salamanders Need a Varied Diet

No species will thrive long-term on a diet comprised solely of crickets. Earthworms can be used as a dietary staple for most newts and salamanders; it would be wise to locate a source and perhaps set up a colony before purchasing your pet (please see the article linked below). I’ve done well by relying upon wild-caught invertebrates during the warmer months. Moths, beetles, tree crickets, harvestmen, “smooth” caterpillars and a variety of others are accepted – usually far more enthusiastically than are crickets! Please see these articles for tips on collecting insects.

 

Useful invertebrates that you can buy include roaches, butterworms, calciworms, silkworms, and sow bugs.

 

t246151Newts are simpler to feed than are terrestrial species, as nearly all (i.e. Red-Spotted, Crested, Paddle-tailed, Ribbed) will accept Zoo Med Aquatic Newt Food and Reptomin. These foods can anchor the diet, with live blackworms (sold in many pet stores as tropical fish food), guppies, chopped earthworms and small crickets being offered on occasion.

 

Spotted Salamanders, Red Efts and other terrestrial species will accept live food only.

 

Many Newts and Salamanders are Heat Sensitive

Average household temperatures are too warm for the vast majority of newts and salamanders. Even those native to seasonally hot regions, such as the Spotted and Marbled Salamanders of the American Southeast or North Africa’s Fire Salamanders, live in cool micro-habitats (often below-ground). Sustained temperatures above 75 F (and, for many, above 70 F) weaken the immune system and increase susceptibility to bacterial and fungal skin infections. A cool basement is the ideal location for most species.

 

If you must keep your pets in a warm room, several of the more tolerant newts should be considered. Please post below for further information.

 

Northern Slimey Salamander

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Patrick Coin

The “It Doesn’t Do Anything” Factor

Ideally, the new amphibian owner will be interested in her or his pet for its own sake. But most of us also wish to see how it lives, what it does, and so on. Many amphibians are about as active as the infamous “pet rock”…and are nocturnal to boot!

 

If you favor an active pet, consider a diurnal newt that forages for rather than ambushes its food, and keep it in a large, naturalistic aquarium. Six Fire-Bellied Newts in a well-planted 20 gallon tank will provide you with infinitely more to observe than will an equal number of Marbled Salamanders housed in a terrarium of the same size.

 

Some nocturnal species may adjust to daytime schedules once they settle into their new homes. Tiger and Fire Salamanders are especially accommodating in this regard. Red night-viewing bulbs will greatly increase your ability to observe Slimy Salamanders and other strictly nocturnal species.

 

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

 

Further Reading

Earthworm Care and Breeding

Newt Care

Fire Salamander Care

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