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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.

Product Review – Nutrafin Cycle

Nutrafin Cycle is used to help establish high populations of nitrifying bacteria (the species that convert ammonia to nitrites and nitrates) in aquariums.  At a recent seminar sponsored by Hagen, the manufacturer, I learned that the product has been modified in several important ways. 


Cycle contains 5 strains of bacteria, in correct proportion of lithotrophic to heterotrophic types, and these activate almost immediately upon exposure to salt or fresh water.  This ability results from a unique fermentation process that, by joining the bacteria into naturally occurring units, or “flocs”, prepares them for immediate action.  So Cycle effective is the process that fish can now be added to an aquarium on the day it is set up – the nitrogen cycle is in full swing that quickly!


Nitrifying bacteria are also necessary in amphibian aquariums, as aquatic species in particular absorb toxins over an even greater surface area than do fish, and so succumb to ammonia poisoning quickly.  Some years ago I learned that the country’s largest African Clawed Frog laboratory (breeders for research) was suggesting that the bacteria might even be useful in amphibian water bowls, as a safety measure.  While I have no direct evidence of such, I have had very good results using bacteria in this way.


The main drawback concerning water bowls is the fact that oxygen levels are low (nitrifying bacteria require a high oxygen environment) and the bacteria used in products other than Cycle take 3-4 days to activate.   Given Cycle’s immediate activation and the fact that the bacteria used have fairly low oxygen requirements, I am recommending the product’s use in amphibian water bowls (and aquariums). 


Even a single day’s delay in cleaning a water bowl can result in an amphibian’s death – in fact, such is a common occurrence among otherwise long-lived frogs that produce a large volume of waste, such a Horned and African Bullfrogs.  Cycle should prove a very effective form of insurance (not, of course, a replacement for water changes) and, happily enough, it is not possible to overdose the animal.


In amphibian aquariums, Cycle used on a weekly basis will also inhibit, via competition, undesirable species of bacteria.  Furthermore, the bacteria in Cycle utilize phosphates as a food source, thereby eliminating a nutrient required by algae and limiting its growth.


Herp Notes – Seagoing Frogs, Parthenogenic Snakes, and a Request for Your Observations

While working in a large tropical bird exhibit at the Bronx Zoo some years back, I was startled to come across tiny frogs hidden among the leaf litter.  I was able to identify them as Greenhouse frogs, Eleutherodactylus planirostris (an apt name, it turns out).  These 1.4 inch-long Cuban natives have been transported around the world, hidden among plants and soil.  Their eggs are laid on land, and the tadpole stage is passed within the egg, so the frogs readily establish themselves in greenhouses and other warm, humid habitats.  It always pays to (discretely) poke around in walk-through zoo exhibits and such places – you never know.


The greenhouse frog belongs to the family Eleutherodactylidea, which contains over 800 species.  Recent research at Pennsylvania State University revealed that all types currently found in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean arrived there by rafting on vegetation over the open seas from South America, rather than across an ancient land bridge, as was previously assumed.  Apparently, individuals of a single species landed in Mexico, and others (again, 1 species) in Central America, and then each evolved into the large number of species found in these places today.


Another world traveler, the Flowerpot snake (or Brahminy blind snake), Ramphotphlops braminus, also utilizes a unique reproductive strategy to establish new populations in far-flung habitats.  All individuals of this species are female and reproduce via parthenogenesis, so only 1 animal is needed to start a colony.  I’ve had the good Flowerpot Snakefortune of running into this odd creature, as well as “banana” spiders, rattlesnakes and others, in unexpected surroundings – more on that next time.



An informative article on this frog’s history in Florida, along with a photo, is posted at:



The Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum, – Care in Captivity – Part 1

Welcome to our new blog location!

Please see here for more background information on this animal’s natural history and life cycle in the wild.



Despite living largely underground in the wild, captive spotted salamanders adjust well to artificial caves and shelters, where they are more easily observed.  Well-adjusted captSpotted Salamanderives quickly lose their secretive, nocturnal ways, and will eagerly accept food offered by plastic feeding tongs.  If attention is paid to their needs, especially as concerns temperature (see below), these stocky, brilliantly marked salamanders make long-lived and hardy pets.


Space and Other Physical Requirements

If provided with a deep (6-12 inches) substrate, spotted salamanders will establish burrows that will be defended and used consistently.  Products such as Zoo Med Eco Earth and R-Zilla Fir/Sphagnum Moss Bedding, with a bit of top soil mixed in, work well as substrates.  The surface should be covered with living or dried sheet moss, such as R-Zilla Compressed Frog Moss.  You can spot clean this type of set-up or occasionally remove the top layer of substrate – living plants in the terrarium will aid in absorbing the salamander’s waste products.


Another useful tip in maintaining cleanliness is to establish a colony of isopods (sow bugs or pill bugs) in the terrarium.  These small crustaceans can easily be collected below rocks and leaf litter.  They are excellent salamander food and avidly consume feces, dead insects and decaying moss (a bit of fish flake food added occasionally will keep them in top shape and assure that they reproduce). 


Land snails are also excellent scavengers, and both they and isopods are fascinating creatures in their own rights.  Snails usually reproduce readily in captivity, and small specimens will be eagerly devoured by spotted salamanders.


A single adult spotted salamander requires an enclosure of approximately the size of a 10 gallon aquarium.


Spotted salamanders may also be kept in ventilated sweater boxes on sheet moss or paper towels.  Each animal should be provided an individual artificial cave or cork bark shelter.


Light, Heat and Humidity

Spotted salamanders favor cool temperatures, retreating far below-ground during the summer months.  They do best at 60-70 F, and are stressed by temperatures over 76 F.  Cool basements make ideal sites for their terrariums, especially during the summer months.  My own basement maintains an air temperature of 50-54 F in the winter, during which time the salamanders continue to feed.  The drop in temperature is good for their health, and helps to maintain normal activity patterns and to spur breeding.


Breathing largely through their skin, spotted salamanders require moist conditions – their terrarium should be misted with de-chlorinated (not distilled) water daily.  Free-living adults rarely enter water other than for breeding, but a shallow, easily-exited water bowl will be utilized by captives. 


Humidity should not be raised by covering the terrarium with plastic – salamanders require circulating air and should be housed in screen-covered enclosures.  In stagnant air conditions, temperatures rise and fungus often attacks the skin.


Spotted salamanders do not require a UVB light source.  If you keep live plants in the terrarium, be sure to use a low output UVB bulb, such as the Reptisun 2.0, as too much UVB can damage the eyes of these and other amphibians.  Check also that the bulb does not cause temperatures to spike.


If you keep your salamanders in an unlit basement, it is a good idea to provide a light cycle for them in the form of a weak room light or fluorescent tank light.  They will do fine in complete darkness, but a day/night period is preferable, especially if you plan on breeding your animals.

Check back next Monday for the conclusion of this article. The image above is referenced from the Spotted Salamander entry on Wikipedia.

The Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum – Part II, Natural History

Spotted Salamander in terrarium

To read the first part of this article, click here.
Natural Diet
Adults consume a wide variety of prey – earthworms, millipedes, crickets, sow bugs, spiders, centipedes, termites and other invertebrates as well as smaller salamanders. The larvae prey upon zooplankton, dragonfly larvae and other aquatic insects, fairy shrimp, tadpoles, red-spotted newt larvae and each other.

Spotted salamanders produce toxic skin secretions but are none-the-less consumed by garter snakes and hog-nosed snakes. Introduced trout, bass, goldfish and other fishes prey upon the larvae and can decimate a population in a single season.

Adults migrate from terrestrial burrows to temporary ponds (vernal pools, swamps, ditches, sluggish streams) in the early spring. The migration is triggered by snow-melt or warm rains, with adults sometimes crossing snow to reach their breeding sites. Males arrive at the ponds 1-6 days before females. I have observed them breeding in Westchester County, NY in mid March, when the water is quite cold. Despite this, I found that food for the larvae, in the form of aquatic insects and fairy shrimp, was abundant.

Large mixed-sex groups form at the pond bottom during courtship. Males deposit a spermatophore (a sperm-filled, jelly-coated capsule) on the pond bottom. The females take this into their cloaca (reproductive opening) and fertilization occurs internally.

The eggs are laid in compact, jelly-covered masses that are attached to twigs, plants or sunken logs. Each mass contains 50-160 eggs. The sight of 20 or more large, brilliantly marked salamanders writhing together in as they vie for breeding rights is really something to see – please write in if you’d like information as to how you might observe this for yourself.

A species of green algae, Oophila amblystomatis, frequently colonizes the egg mass, apparently supplying oxygen to the embryos and utilizing the carbon dioxide that they produce. Larvae from algae-colonized egg masses hatch earlier and exhibit less mortality than do those from algae-free masses.

The adults return to their burrows after breeding. The terrestrial habitat may be 75 – 1,000 feet from the breeding pond.

The larvae hatch in 8-60 days, depending upon water temperature, and have external gills. Transformation to the adult form takes place over a period ranging from 6 weeks to 18 months. In NY, the larvae typically leave the breeding ponds by late July or August, after which the ponds usually dry up.

Adult spotted salamanders have lungs but rely largely upon cutaneous respiration (the absorption of oxygen through the skin). The skin must remain moist if this form of respiration is to be effective – they are therefore, limited to damp habitats and rarely appear above ground except after heavy rains. They and other salamanders depend upon protective tree cover, leaf litter and fallen logs to retain soil moisture, and rapidly disappear from degraded habitats.


You can read more about spotted salamander natural history and conservation at:
Of course, you can also order my salamander book from That Pet Place (see above) – Thanks!


The Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum – Part I, Natural History

Spotted Salamander

Salamanders are not given nearly the attention they deserve by amphibian enthusiasts and, consequently, we know far less about their habits and care than we do of their more familiar relatives, the frogs. Many species, however, do very well in captivity and make long-lived (to over 50 years!) and responsive pets. A number are brilliantly colored, and all exhibit complex social behaviors and other traits that are easily observed in a properly designed captive habitat. I hope you will check out my book, Newts and Salamanders if you find these creatures as interesting as do I.

In contrast to frogs, salamanders reach their greatest diversity in temperate habitats – more species are found in the eastern USA than anywhere else on earth. Today I would like to take a look at the natural history of the spotted salamander – a large, local beauty that makes both an excellent “first salamander” and a fine addition to advanced collections. Next week I’ll cover their care in captivity.

Physical Description
Varies in length from 4 ¾ to 9 ¾ inches. Stoutly built, with a black or slate- colored body marked by irregular rows of brilliant yellow (occasionally orange) spots. Larvae are usually a uniform olive or brown in color with bushy red external gills.

Range and Habitat
Eastern and central North America – from Nova Scotia and central Ontario, Canada south to Georgia and west to eastern Iowa and eastern Texas. They are absent from southern NJ and the Delmarva Peninsula. Isolated populations are still to be found within NYC, on Staten Island and in Queens and the north Bronx.

Spotted salamanders favor deciduous lowland forests and meadows near forest edges and sometimes inhabit woodland patches within suburban areas. Adults require soil into which they can burrow and the fish-less bodies of water for breeding (the larvae are relatively defenseless against fish). Certain populations breed where fishes are present, but only if dense aquatic plant cover is available.

Spotted salamanders are members of the family Ambystomatidae – the mole salamanders. True to this name, the terrestrial adults spend most of their lives below logs or underground in self-excavated burrows or in those dug by mammals such as moles, shrews and field mice. They have been found at depths of 4 feet below ground, and generally forage on the surface only on damp or rainy nights. Spotted salamanders are sensitive to soil pH and avoid acidic soil.

Status in the Wild
Common in some parts of the range and drastically declining in others due to habitat loss – the removal of trees causes the soil to dry, and results in loss of the protective leaf-litter cover needed by this species. The introduction of trout and other game fish to breeding ponds quickly causes local extinctions.

Spotted salamanders typically breed in vernal (temporary) ponds, which are often small in size and only a few inches deep (these lack fish – see above). Unfortunately, such “puddles” are rarely recognized as worthy of protection, and hence are destroyed at a greater rate than are other habitats.

They are also threatened by acid rain and road-salting, both of which change soil and breeding pond pH, killing the larvae and driving off the adults. Protected by several states but not nationally, and not listed by CITES.

Check back on Friday for conclusion of this article.
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