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Contains articles and advice on a wide variety of amphibian species, including frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians. Answers and addresses questions on species husbandry, captive status, breeding, news and conservation issues concerning amphibians.

Hot Weather Herp Tips – Summer’s Effect on Reptiles and Amphibians

Green AnoleMost herp enthusiasts know that amphibians are usually quite sensitive to warm temperatures.  However, reptiles, even those native to tropical and desert habitats, may be severely impacted as well.  Following are some general guidelines to keep in mind at the height of summer – please write in for more detailed information about the animals in your collection.

General Considerations

Even within the hottest of natural habitats, herps find ways to escape temperature extremes.  Millions of years of evolution have brought us a great many surprises in this regard – Australia’s Water Holding Frog, for example, thrives where most unprotected creatures, even reptiles, would cook in short order.  So while desert adapted animals may be better suited to withstand heat, do not assume that they will be fine without special attention. Read More »

Spring Field Trips: Amphibians, Reptiles, Invertebrates, Birds

NET, LOOKING, CRAYFSHRecording the first time I see various creatures each spring is a habit that stretches back to my childhood, and to this day I keep and even re-read my old notebooks. Over the last few years, the unbridled enthusiasm of a new field partner (not to mention his wonderfully keen eyesight!), has kept me outdoors even more than in the past (see photos).

Spring 2015 has been slow to arrive and seemingly loathe to take hold here in southern NY and northern NJ. But we have persisted in looking for our favorite spring sights, and over the past several weeks have finally been rewarded with views of old favorites and some new observations as well.


Early Spring Amphibians

There are several vernal ponds in southern Westchester County, NY, where, if the weather and amphibian gods favor us, spotted salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers can be observed breeding on the same night. As the large, vividly-colored Spotted Salamanders have always been favorites of mine, and are the most elusive of the “Big Three” early spring amphibians, I usually focus on finding them.


HOLD SPOTTED SALAMANDERLast year, we hit it just right, and were able to find males beneath leaves along the shore of a breeding pond, awaiting the females’ arrival (the sexes arrive in 2 separate waves, co-mingling only “when necessary”). I’ve found breeding groups as early as March 19th in southern NY, but last year the salamanders showed up during the second week of April. I returned to one favored site during the same week this year, only to find snow on the ground and ice along the pond’s edge! I’ll return soon, hopefully to be rewarded by the sight of their rounded, algae-tinged egg masses.


An even earlier spring breeder, the Eastern Tiger Salamander (in NY, limited in distribution to eastern Long Island) is sometimes roused to action by mid-February. I was unable to visit any sites this year, but assume they were late in breeding as well, given the frigid February we experienced.

Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers were also weeks later than usual, at least per my records, but have now (May 1) reproduced. A friend called tonight from Cape Cod to say that spring peepers were still in full chorus there.


IMG_9954Mid-April in a NJ Swamp: Snappers, Frogs, Birds & Butterflies

On April 17, 2015, we visited a small button bush swamp in northern NJ. Last year at this time, it was alive with bullfrogs, painted turtles, aquatic insects and other typical warm weather residents. We almost immediately came upon a large male common snapping turtle, half-buried in the mud in very shallow water. The cool weather rendered him quite sluggish – a plus for the little turtle wrangler who hauled him out for closer inspection! Snappers are about as cold-tolerant as a turtle can be…several years ago I found one basking on February 16th. By mid-April, they are usually their normal feisty selves, ready and willing to do battle…not so this cold, old fellow.



IMG_5757 SM FROGWe saw none of the American bullfrogs that normally abound in this swamp, but did net several second-year tadpoles that had emerged from hibernation. Green frogs were also absent from the main swamp, but we flushed several near a small, sun-warmed vernal pond. Our net failed to find any water scorpions, diving beetles or other common aquatic insects, but many over-winter as eggs, and so are difficult to locate prior to maturity.


Happily, the red-winged blackbirds were out in force, and calling all day. I’ve observed these early harbingers of spring to return to NY as early as February 2nd. A single mourning cloak, one of the few local butterflies that over-winters as an adult, flitted through the still largely-brown woodland that borders the swamp. At 6 PM, a light rain began to fall, and a small chorus of spring peepers, undaunted by daylight, started-up…assuring us, as little else can, that spring was finally here!


snapper in waterThe Great Swamp: Amorous Snappers, Snakes & Beetles

It’s impossible for a naturalist to have a disappointing visit to New Jersey’s magnificent Great Swamp, and our April 24th trip there confirmed this once again. Although perhaps a bit behind schedule, spring was now in full throttle. A pair of snapping turtles mated (or “wrestled”, according to my 7-year-old cohort!) with abandon within 2 feet of a boardwalk (please see photo). The first rainy night in June should bring the female, and almost all others in this part of the country, out to nest.


Garter, haidenGarter snakes, green frogs and painted turtles were very much in evidence, and flickers issued forth with staccato calls that seemed more suited to a central African rainforest than a NJ suburb. Our prize insect find was a larval caterpillar-hunter beetle. At the nearby Raptor Trust we were treated to several birds we hadn’t seen in some time, including short-eared owls, ravens and, most surprisingly, an albino/leucistic American robin.




Along the Hudson: Eels, Eagles & Nesting Herons

When last I searched the southern reaches of the Hudson River, back in late February, bald eagles rode some of the waterway’s many ice floes. Friends who frequent the river’s west shore north of Bear Mountain report that resident eagles are now feeding chicks, great blue herons are brooding eggs, and millions of tiny “glass eels” (juvenile American eels) are on the move.


A late spring means that there’s still time to see some of the wonderful natural events you may have missed, and that we can look forward to the explosion of life that herald’s early summer – get out there if you can, and please post your observations below!



Further Reading

Amphibian Breeding Site Conservation

Collecting Insects: Traps & Tips

Amphiuma Care: Keeping one of the World’s Largest Amphibians

Measuring up to 45.6 inches in length and armed with the teeth and attitude of an angry watersnake, the Two-Toed Amphiuma (Amphiuma means) is the largest of North America’s amphibians. Although quite a handful, it is also a fascinating creature, and with proper care may live past the 30 year mark. Due to a lifelong interest in large, aquatic salamanders, I tend to ramble on when writing about them. Therefore, I’ve covered the Two Toed Amphiuma’s natural history in a separate article (please see this article). Today we’ll take a look at its captive care.


Two Toed Amphiuma

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Brian Gratwicke

Some Cautions

The Amphiuma’s rough-and-tumble disposition and innate hardiness (one at the London Zoo topped 30 years of age) should not be taken as an excuse to ignore water quality. Effective filtration and frequent water changes are critical to their health. Please see my article on Mudpuppy Care, linked below, for further details on managing water quality in aquariums housing large aquatic salamanders.


Move Amphiumas by coaxing into net…they are slippery and they can administer a very painful bite, so do not free-handle. Their skin damages easily in nylon nets, so transfers should be made quickly and carefully, and only when necessary.


The Aquarium

An adult Amphiuma will require an aquarium of at least 55 gallons capacity.


The aquarium’s lid should be well-secured, as they will attempt to escape at night. For newly arrived individuals, it’s prudent to line the lid with foam or enclose in a pillow case so they do not damage their snouts by rubbing on screening.


Type habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by US Fish and Wildlife Service

Amphiumas favor swamps and other heavily-vegetated, mud-bottomed aquatic habitats.  Keep plenty of cover such as plastic plants in aquarium, and provide a cave or PVC pipe where the Amphiuma can get completely out of sight.


Water Quality

In common with other amphibians, Amphiumas have porous skin that allows for the absorption of harmful chemicals. Careful attention to water quality is essential.


An aquarium pH test kit should always be on hand. Amphiumas fare well at a pH of 6.5 to 7.0.


Ammonia, excreted as a waste product and produced via organic decomposition, is colorless, odorless and extremely lethal to all amphibians; a test kit  should be used to monitor its levels.


mediaChlorine and chloramine must be removed from water used for any amphibian. Liquid chlorine/chloramine removers are highly effective and work instantly.


Copper may be present in water carried by old pipes; a test kit should be used if you suspect its presence.



Under-gravel, corner, hanging and submersible filters can all be used in Amphiuma aquariums. Even with good filtration, regular partial water changes are essential in keeping ammonia levels in check.


Be sure that the entry/exit openings for filter tubes are well-secured, lest they provide an escape route. I find it easier to use Ovation submersible filters (see above) for these and other powerful amphibian escape artists.


Light and Heat

Dim lighting by day followed by brighter lights at night may encourage daytime activity, but do this only if animal is feeding and otherwise adjusted to captivity. Night-viewing bulbs will help you to observe Amphiumas after dark. All those that I’ve kept at home or in zoos have fed readily by day once adjusted to captivity.


Amphiumas fare best at water temperatures of 70-75 F, but tolerate a wider range.


I have kept Amphiumas on gravel and bare-bottomed aquariums, but a soft sand or clay-based substrate is preferable, especially for individuals that try to burrow. Avoid any material that will raise pH.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Gusmonkeyboy


Minnows, shiners (and other whole freshwater fishes) and earthworms should form the bulk of the diet. Goldfish should be used sparingly, if at all, as they have been implicated in health problems (other species). Small crayfishes are a great favorite (I remove the claws for safety’s sake). Crickets and other insects, shrimp, and frozen foods formulated for large aquarium fish are also readily accepted.


After a time in captivity, most individuals will accept turtle pellets and freeze-dried shrimp.



Related Articles

Mudpuppy Care

Greater Siren Care

Amphiuma Natural History


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



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.



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.



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.



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.



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).



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 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.



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.



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)


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.



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.



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.



Further Reading

Collecting Feeder Insects

Differentiating the Two Painted Mantellas

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.



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.



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.



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.



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.


Further Reading

Keeping the Greater Siren

Salamander Conservation Efforts


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