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Amphibian Care during Power Outages – Bacteria, Disease and Oxygen

Albino FrogsHurricane Sandy, which hit the Northeastern USA in October of 2012, caused losses to both private herp keepers and zoos.  My own collection, home to a 32+ year-old Red Salamander and several others aged 20+, thankfully fared very well.  The zoos and aquariums for which I consult are working to limit losses; I’ll provide updates via Twitter.

Reptile care during power outages is well-understood by most, so today I’ll focus on amphibians, as their unique needs can be easily over-looked.  Most of the points mentioned below also apply to semi-aquatic species.

Filter Care and Bacteria Die-offs

When power fails, submersible, corner, and other internal filters should be removed from the aquarium.  When oxygenated water is flowing through a filter, ammonia is converted to less toxic nitrites and nitrates by beneficial aerobic bacteria.  Once the flow of water stops, the resident beneficial bacteria perish and your filter becomes a source of decomposing organic material, poisoning the already-stressed aquarium inhabitants.  Fish keepers are well aware of these processes, which are part of the nitrogen cycle.  An understanding of the nitrogen cycle will enhance your ability to keep and breed amphibians; (please see this article).

As the contents of external aquarium filters are not in direct contact with the water, they will not immediately add to the pollution problem.  However, these filters should be disconnected, because when electric power is restored they will flood the tank with ammonia and other toxins.  Amphibians lack the protection offered by fish scales, and so succumb to ammonia poisoning quickly when water conditions deteriorate (scale-less fishes, such as eels, loaches, and certain catfishes, are also sensitive).

When Power Returns

Before being re-connected, the filtration material in internal and external filters should be replaced or rinsed.

Under normal circumstances, you can re-seed a newly-cleaned filter with aerobic bacteria by leaving in a bit of used filter material; alternatively, you can replace only a portion of the material when the filter is serviced.  After a power outage, however, your filters will not contain living bacteria.  Nutrafin Cycle can be used to reintroduce live beneficial bacteria to your filters.  A colleague of mine who works at a major frog-breeding laboratory vouches for this useful product.  Upon his recommendation, I’ve begun to use Nutrafin in water bowls and after regular filter changes as well (please see this article).

“Insurance”: Check Valves

Check valves are an inexpensive (as in “less than $2”) yet often over-looked means of limiting damages during power failures.  These simple devices prevent water from flowing up airline tubing and out of the tank when pumps shut down.

Parasite and Disease Concerns

mudpuppy and tadsSpiking ammonia levels depress amphibian immune systems, as does the often rapid rise in temperature once power returns. Cold temperatures are generally less of a concern than is the case for reptiles, but this will vary by species. I’ve observed Fire Salamanders moving about normally at 38 F (while trying to induce dormancy), and my Red, Marbled and Tiger Salamanders feed throughout the winter at 55 F. Temperature reduction can even be used as a medical treatment; please see this article for some interesting observations.

Temperatures that are too cold for a particular species, or a rapid temperature change, can stress the immune system.  Parasites and pathogens are always present in the aquarium, even when conditions are ideal.  Healthy frogs and salamanders can fight off many common invaders, but often become ill when their immune systems are not working at full throttle.

One of the most common parasites to afflict immune-depressed fishes is the protozoan Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, which causes the infection widely known as “Ich”.  Many have long suspected that this micro-organism also infects amphibians, and indeed this was confirmed in 1999 (please see this article).  Fish medications have proven useful, but should be administered to amphibians gradually, beginning with half the recommended dose.  I’ve had great results using Methylene Blue to treat ailing amphibians, and as a prophylactic step; please see this article.

Other problems may develop, even after conditions are back to normal. For example, food consumed prior to the outage may remain undigested and lead to a serious infection. Please post any questions you may have below. 

Oxygen Deprivation

The water’s oxygen content drops rapidly once pumps shut down.  Commonly-kept aquatic amphibians that rely primarily upon their gills (Mudpuppies, Axolotls) or skin (Hellbenders) for respiration can also take in oxygen at the water’s surface, via the lungs.  However, this is stressful to secretive species that generally remain in underwater retreats.  Tadpoles and salamander larvae may, depending upon their stage of development, be able to gulp air at the surface.

Aerators and Oxygen Tablets

There are a number of things you can do to provide oxygen for your aquatic amphibians during power failures.  Battery-operated aerators are very effective.  The Penn Plax Silent Air B-11 is especially useful, as it turns on automatically when electricity fails.  Oxygen Stones – tablets that create bubbles as they dissolve – should also be on hand.

Plants, Manual Aeration, Water Changes

Live plants, especially those that do well in low-light conditions, can make a real difference in oxygen levels and water quality.  Java Moss lives quite well in my aquatic insect tanks, which receive only ambient room light, and survived 6 days in near total darkness in my larger aquariums.

Don’t forget manual aeration.  By simply scooping up some water and pouring in into your tank from above, you can significantly raise oxygen levels.

FrogsPartial water changes will add oxygen while reducing toxin levels.  Water leaves my tap at 60 F, which is fine for many amphibians.  Water changes will go a long way in helping your animals to survive.

What’s Next…What Can I Do?

Even after all is back to normal, watch your pets carefully for signs of the concerns mentioned above.  Please write in for more information on hurricane-related issues.



Further Reading

Turtleback Zoo Tends to People and Animals during Hurricane

First Documentation of “Ich” in Frogs

Nutrafin Cycle

Extreme Cold Hardiness in Amphibians


About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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