New Salamander Fungus Found: Are More Pet Trade Regulations on the Way?

Fire salamander

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by M. Linnenbach

As a herpetologist and animal keeper, I’ve long been interested in the emerging amphibian disease commonly known as Chytrid or BD (Batrachochytrium dendrobatitis); please see my other articles, linked below. Believed to be responsible for the recent extinctions of over 200 frog species, this fungus remains a serious threat. In 2013, a related fungus, B. salamandrivorans, or BS, was identified. Since then, studies have revealed it to be as lethal as BD, and responsible for wiping-out the Netherlands wild Fire Salamanders. Once limited to Asian salamanders, some of which carry the fungus without becoming ill, BS seems to have found its way to Europe via the importation of Chinese Fire-Bellied Newts and other pet trade species. In order to stem the tide, the USA and the European Union are now considering import and sale regulations.


Chytrid infected frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Forrest Brem

Proposed regulations always raise hackles among pet-keepers and some politicians. However, amphibians sold in the pet trade (African Clawed Frogs), bait trade (Tiger Salamander larvae) and food trade (American and Asian Bullfrogs) have been implicated in the spread of the deadly Chytrid (BD) fungus, and released Burmese Pythons and various exotic fish are causing ecological havoc in Florida. So – what is the solution? Your thoughts would be most appreciated, please post below.


Chinese Fire Bellied Newt

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Dobromila


100% Mortality in North American Newts

As reported in Science Magazine (V. 346, No. 6209, Oct., 2014), researchers tested 5,000 salamanders from 4 continents for susceptibility to the newly-discovered fungus. Of the 35 species examined, some showed 100% mortality. Included in this group were 2 well-known US natives, the Eastern Newt and the Rough-Skinned Newt.


Several Asian salamanders were unaffected by BS, spurring fears that such individuals, while appearing to be healthy, could serve as long-term carriers capable of transmitting the fungus to other species.


Rough skinned newt

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jsayre64

Pet Trade Connection

The millions of Chinese Fire-Bellied Newts imported into Europe from Asia are believed to be the primary route by which BS was spread to the Netherlands’ now extinct Fire Salamanders. The fungus may have found its way into natural habitats via discarded terrarium water and/or released pets. According to researchers at the Imperial College of London, there is no way to limit the spread of the fungi populations that are already established in Europe, and herpetologists predict that more local extinctions will be documented. The EU is considering restrictions on amphibian imports under various animal health laws.


Fire-Bellied Newts and other Asian species are also popularly kept in the USA, home to the world’s greatest diversity of salamander species. With so many US natives already decimated by BD and habitat loss, and scores naturally limited to tiny ranges (i.e. the Texas Blind Cave Salamander), the arrival of BS would be disastrous.


Eastern Newts

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Magnus Manske

Congress, US F&W Service Taking Action

According to a recent New York Times op-ed piece (Oct. 31, 2014), Congress is considering increasing the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s authority to regulate the importation of pet trade animals. However, the process is being resisted by anti-regulation members.


Working in conjunction with the US F&W Service, the Pet Industry Joint Council is seeking ways to limit the threat posed by imported Asian salamanders.

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

Food Trade Kills Billions of Frogs & Spreads Chytrid

Chorus Frogs and Chytrid

Arachnids and Herps: A Zookeeper’s Scary Halloween Stories

Anaconda by truckEach Halloween, I think back to the close calls I’ve had during a lifetime of work in zoos and the field. I suppose some, such as narrow escapes from a Kodiak Bear and an enraged King Cobra, would qualify as “near death experiences.” Others, i.e. wrestling huge Green Anacondas from Venezuelan swamps and mixing it up with a giant, wild-caught Reticulated Python, were dangerous but manageable, and have provided me with ample fodder for “war stories”.   I’ll summarize a few of these today. I’d also like to highlight Windscorpions, Hellbenders and other creatures that appear to be dangerous but do not actually deserve their fearsome reputations.


My Scariest Experience

When you are lucky enough to send an entire lifetime working with creatures ranging (literally!) from ants to elephants, a few encounters that set the heart to full throttle are inevitable. In contrast to what you may see posted on social media by self-styled “adrenaline junkies”, serious professionals do not actively seek trouble – enough comes along on its own.


Kodiak bear

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Yathin S Krishnappa

Mammals, with their advanced abilities to plan and respond, demand special respect from zookeepers and field researchers, and are responsible for more injuries and fatalities than are other groups. My closest call came courtesy of a Kodiak bear that weighed-in at approximately 1,200 lbs. With one eye patched (another story!), I failed to notice an unlocked door when I moved the animal into its shift cage. I entered the main holding cage and began cleaning, noticing in passing that the light from the hallway suddenly dimmed, and then was back to normal. As my brain registered that there were no passing clouds to dim the light, I heard the sound of tools falling – and I knew what had happened.


I stuck my head out of the cage, and came face to face with the bear. It was in front of the nearest door (of course!), and stood up to its full 12 foot height as I appeared. My mad dash through the building, around corners and down 2 flights of stairs set some type of record I’m sure. The exit I reached had to be opened via a key but, amazingly the right one (on a ring with 15 others), appeared in my fingers as I reached the door.


I made the standard radio emergency calls, and NYPD was first on the scene. The officer, whom I knew well, patted his weapon and said all would be okay should the bear break through the building’s door before the big game rifles (always on site for emergencies) and anesthesia darts arrived. Then the beast’s huge head appeared at a window – the officer looked at his weapon and said “This would just make him angry” (that’s a cleaned-up version of his actual comment!).


Co-workers arrived and asked why I was holding a broomstick; I didn’t know, but must have instinctively grabbed it while fleeing the scene. “Toothpick for the bear” quipped the once again cocky police officer! Fortunately, the bear was drugged and returned to its cage without further incident, and I (somehow!) remained employed.


Pygmy Hippo skull

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Uwe Gille

Anesthetized animals that woke up unexpectedly – including a tiger that was beside me in a van and a polar bear with which I was temporarily sharing a shipping crate – also livened up my days at the Bronx Zoo. Wrestling animals into shipping crates was always risky – a guanaco treated me to several cracked ribs, and pygmy hippos, nyala antelope, bison and too many others to list here all did their best to exact their pound of flesh. Escaped gorillas, snow leopards, gibbons and others added to the excitement. I’ll detail these and others in future articles…until then, please post your own questions and observations below.


SMILE,RAT SNAKERampaging Reptiles and Invertebrates

Three trips to capture and tag Green Anacondas in the Venezuelan llanos provided me with a lifetime of interesting and sometimes dangerous experiences. Accidentally grabbing an electric eel or stepping on a fresh water ray were actually the most risky aspects of the work, but the snakes did their best to leave their mark as well – as evidenced by the tooth that remains embedded in my wrist to this day (the resulting infection was far more serious than the bite itself). One especially aggressive anaconda grabbed a co-worker in what was undoubtedly a feeding attempt – you can read more in the article linked below.  Of course, as you can see from the photo above, many reptiles are harmless in the right hands…and at the right size!


Venomous snakes pose great risks to zookeepers, because we must physically move the animals in the course of servicing their exhibits. Special challenges were presented to me by Spitting Cobras that escaped after a visitor encouraged his son to kick-in the glass front of their exhibit, and by a King Cobra at large in an airport. Danger-wise, crocodilians are in a class by themselves – none more so than the fast, high-jumping and always feisty Cuban Crocodile. A pitched battle between 7 individuals and 2 enormous False Gharials, into which I and 2 co-workers inserted ourselves, was both thrilling and frightening. This story is recounted in colleague Pete Brazaitis’ fine book You Belong in a Zoo. You can also read more about this incident, and those mentioned earlier, in the articles linked below.


Alligator at SIZInvertebrates have generally treated me well, but I was once awakened by a frantic call from a biologist who had left some recently-collected tropical millipedes in my care. Two researchers working with these creatures had recently died, and a toxin released by the animals was the suspected cause. It turned out to be a false alarm. Interestingly, some South American monkeys do rub these millipedes into their fur. Secretions released by the agitated millipedes are believed to repel insect pests and/or kill parasites.


Scary When First Seen, but…

First impressions matter, and this is especially true where fear is concerned. Many relatively harmless creatures are fearsome in appearance, and can thus bluff their way out of trouble. And it is not only novices that can be fooled. I’ve collected and reared dragonfly larvae since childhood, and have handled the adults of dozens of species. While larger ones, some of which capture small fish, can deliver a slight nip, none have stingers. Some years ago, I caught a beauty on St. Croix. As I examined it, the bright red abdomen quickly curved forward and the tip pressed against my skin…a harmless ruse, but I instinctively dropped the insect and off it flew!


The bizarre Windscorpions or Sun Spiders, sometimes kept by arachnid enthusiasts, can administer a painful bite with their huge jaws. But their threatening appearance, and unsettling habit of scurrying after people in order to hide in the shade they provide, lends them a reputation that far exceeds their capability to do harm.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Brian Gratwicke

The USA’s Hellbender, a huge, aquatic salamander, has much more to fear from us than vice-versa. But it is just so odd-looking, and so infrequently seen, that its appearance on the end of a fishing line always causes a stir. All of my childhood herp books carried a statement to the effect that “most fisherman cut the line once its ugly, flat head appears”… “Ah, to have such problems” I thought, longing for the chance to encounter one. I still haven’t – at least not in the wild – but I have had the great pleasure of meeting its 5-foot-long cousin, the Japanese Giant Salamander, in Japan.


Another US native, the beautiful Rainbow Snake, also generates unwarranted fear. It and the related Mud Snake bear a hard, pointed scale at the tail’s tip. When handled, they press this into the skin of the would-be-collector. No damage is done, but they are often dropped in response, and have earned the name “stinging snake” in some regions. Various centipedes employ a similar tactic, but it their case toxins may be injected, and the distraction sets one up for a very painful and potentially dangerous bite.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Braboowi

Vampires, Ghosts and Goblins

Vampire, Ghost, and Thailand Fanged Frogs, Goblin Sharks, caecilians that consume their father’s living skin, parrot-eating bats, Halloween Crabs and numerous others are great creatures to investigate as the creepiest of holidays approaches. You can read more about them in this article.



Further Reading

Tagging Anacondas in Venezuela

Cobra and Python Escapes

Working with Large Crocodiles


Reptiles and Amphibians in Outdoor Pens or Ponds: Preparing for Winter

Backyard pond

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Nowis

I’ve always enjoyed keeping my herp pets, and those I’ve cared for in zoos, in outdoor ponds and exhibits. I see a wider variety of behaviors and have better breeding results, and the access to natural sunlight and wild insects is very beneficial for the animals. The arrival of winter, however, ends the fun and brings special challenges. Today I’ll cover indoor and outdoor hibernation of terrestrial and aquatic turtles and frogs, and review what to do if you wish to keep your pets active year-round.


General Considerations

Hibernation is risky under the best of circumstances. Each spring, I see evidence of winter die-offs among free-living reptiles and amphibians. The safest option for most pet owners is to keep your animals active and feeding throughout the winter.


Reptiles and amphibians native to temperate climates may not reproduce unless subjected to period of dormancy. However, in many cases a short, cool resting period will suffice – true “winter” in not needed.   Details vary widely as to species, so please post below for further information.


Green frogs in amplexus

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Greenfrogmaster

It has been theorized that hibernation enhances the long-term health of those species that do so in the wild, but there seems to be nothing of substance published to this effect. During my long career in zoos, I’ve kept hundreds of temperate zone species active and breeding year-round for many years. In my personal collection, a number of North American natives, including 30-45 year-old-turtles and salamanders aged 20-35 years, have never experienced dormancy.


Animals subjected to hibernation must be healthy, well-hydrated, and possessed of ample fat reserves; a vet exam in early autumn is recommended.


Depending upon the species and the size of the individual, pre-hibernation preparation should include a fast of 1-4 weeks in duration (please post below for further information).


Eastern Box Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Stephen Friedt

Outdoor Hibernation

Box Turtles and Toads

I’ve had good results by allowing Eastern Box Turtles and American Toads to dig down into the soil and leaf litter within their pens. However, the ground must be loosened in the fall, and I always add a 6-12 inch layer of fallen leaves to the surface. Note: although many people keep American Wood Turtles in largely-terrestrial pens, they spend the winter at the bottom of streams, not on land.


The pen should be exposed to rainfall year-round, as terrestrial turtles and toads require somewhat moist hibernation sites. Drainage must be provided…I’ve only left animals outdoors in bottomless pens, so that water does not pool.


Eastern Painted Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Greg Schechter

Aquatic Turtles and Frogs

Red-Eared Sliders, Painted Turtles, Green Frogs, American Bullfrogs and similar species usually overwinter underwater, beneath mud and leaf litter. Unless you are well-experienced or have expert guidance, I would not recommend trying to keep these creatures outdoors for the winter.


Dormant turtles absorb oxygen via the cloaca, while amphibians utilize diffusion through the skin. Your pond water’s oxygen level is, therefore, critical, but we have little information on any species’ exact requirements. Water depth is also a concern.


Aerators and surface heaters designed for use with koi and goldfish can be employed if you wish to keep your aquatic pets outdoors. You can read more about general winter pond preparations on ThatFishBlog…please see the links below.


I have had success in overwintering some aquatic species outdoors (i.e. Sliders, Snappers, Musk, Mud, Spotted and Painted Turtles, Green and Bullfrogs, Northern Watersnakes) but my best results were in large outdoor zoo exhibits rather than backyard ponds.


In both my pens and natural situations, I was several times surprised to find American Bullfrogs and Green Frogs hibernating on land – they missed the “go to the pond memo”, I guess!


Indoor Hibernation

Indoor hibernation is a bit less risky in some ways, as you can monitor the animals closely and avoid the extreme conditions that occur outdoors. However, it is still not advisable for pet-keepers lacking considerable experience.


American Box Turtles can be over-wintered in moist sphagnum moss at 38-42 F. A refrigerator designated for this purpose is ideal, but attics, garages and similar areas can be used if temperatures are appropriate. American Toads and their relatives can be maintained in the same manner, but they usually remain active and feeding down to 55 F or so, and so are easier to “keep awake”.


Keeping your pets in an unheated or extra-cool room of the house is not satisfactory. At temperatures too low for normal activity, yet above those needed for dormancy (i.e. 50-65 F for many temperate zone species), food reserves are used and the immune system fails to protect from respiratory and other infections.

While aquatic turtles and frogs have been successfully over-wintered in aerated water at 40 F, I would not advise taking the risk.


Avoiding Hibernation

Spotted, Wood, Box and Painted Turtles, and others with similar life histories, may be kept active at their normal temperatures year-round. I tend to maintain them at the lower end of their normal active range, but provide a warmer basking site. If the animals are in good health, a dip to 60 F at night will do no harm (different species vary in this regard – please post below for specific information).


Gray Treefrogs in amplexus

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Fredlyfish4

Temperate zone frogs and toads, including Fire-bellied Toads, American Bullfrogs, Gray Treefrogs and Leopard Frogs remain active and feeding at normal to low (i.e. 55 F) room temperatures. The change from summer highs seems to do them good, and in some cases (i.e. Fire-bellied Toads), may also stimulate breeding behavior.



Russian and Greek Tortoises, along with several other species, experience cool to cold winters in some portions of their natural ranges. However, it is difficult to successfully induce dormancy among captives, either in the home or outdoors. Please post below if you wish to attempt this, and I’ll send along specific information.


Internal Controls on Behavior

Circadian rhythms, which might be likened to “internal clocks”, govern behavior to varying degrees. For example, Indian Gharials under my care for 14 years refused food in tune with the cool season in their native range, despite being kept at optimal temperatures (they lost virtually no weight during the 3 month period, however).


Among pets, wild-caught individuals of certain species may refuse food and become less active even when kept warm during the winter. In some cases, captive-born youngsters of the same animals will feed normally all winter long. Captive born individuals of other species may enter semi-dormancy despite being many generations removed from the wild. For species with large ranges, the origin of the parent stock may be important. I’ve had experience with this scenario in a number of reptiles and amphibians, and am very interested in learning more…please post your observations and questions below.



Further Reading

 Preparing Your Pond for Winter

Bullfrogs in Backyard Ponds

Red-eared Sliders in Backyard Ponds

Exciting New Exotic Animal Displays in our Reptile Room

In the Reptile Room section of our Lancaster, Pennsylvania retail store, our expert staff is always creating new and exciting displays.  These amazing displays rarely get the exposure they deserve – so we wanted to take a moment and highlight their extraordinary work on That Reptile Blog. Check them out below or stop by our store and see for yourself!



Mantella Tank

This display features the unique Mantella frog (Mantella ebenaui) in a 40 gallon Marineland Perfecto aquarium.  The brown variety of this rare frog is native to Madagascar.  The landscape includes river rock gravel, topped with several live plants, including creeping fig, liverwort and begonia.  The staff has also included a mini water reservoir with several small goldfish.



What makes this set up special, is that the tank is fully sustaining ecosystem that requires no filtration and little maintenance.  The system relies on the live plants and gold fish to digest nutrients created by the breakdown of uneaten food and waste.  The only maintenance required is feeding the Mantella and trimming back plants as needed.  This set up is maintained by several members of our staff, including Josh Mangan.




 IMG_0876Volcano Tank

This awesome “active” volcano was handcrafted by our Reptile Room associate Jesse Taylor.  The inventive design includes a Zoo Med Repti-Fogger surrounded by natural Eco Earth bedding.  The fogger releases a steamy mist that creates the appearance of volcanic activity.  Housed in an 18 in. x 18 in. x 24 in. Exo Terra Glass Terrarium, the ecosystem also includes an Eco Earth and live seasonal moss base, as it is prepared to hold African Reed Frogs.



IMG_0952Customized Blue Gliding Frog Terrarium

Created by Reptile Room supervisor Ryan Chillas, this great set up features two Vietnamese Blue Gliding Frogs.  To best replicate the natural environment of the frogs, Chillas created a detailed, natural set up that includes a water reservoir and waterfall.  He added a river rock base and several live plants, including creeping fig, liverwort and a peace lily.

To create the waterfall, Chillas borrowed some non-toxic expanding foam sealant from our pond section.  He used it to fashion a back wall that holds an Aquatop fountain pump.  The pump draws water from the bottom reservoir and moves it to the top of the foam wall.  Chillas also added petrified wood and rocks throughout the foam wall.  Adding live plants, it creates the perfect climbing environment that the arboreal Blue Gliding Frogs would find in their natural habitat.


If you’d like to check out these great displays, stop by our Reptile Room in our Lancaster, Pennsylvania store. In addition to these animals, we also have a large variety of lizards, tortoises and spiders to pique your curiosity.  You can check with Josh, Jesse or Ryan in person or speak with any of the members of our helpful expert staff.  We are always ready, willing and able to answer any questions you might have!





My Experiences with Snake Necked Turtles in Zoos and at Home

Giant Snake Necked Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sam Fraser-Smith

Among the Snake Necked Turtles of the family Chelidae we find some of the world’s most unique and effective reptilian predators. I’ve had the good fortune of knowing many, including a few that were newly-described; all have been fascinating to keep. From the massive Giant Snake Neck (Chelodina expansa), which snatches fish with blinding speed, to the bizarre Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriatus), which sucks them down like a vacuum cleaner, all have their surprises and secrets. While many are suited only for experienced keepers with room to spare, others are quite hardy and suitable for most serious turtle enthusiasts.



The world’s 56 Snake Necked Turtles are classified in the family Chelidae. Their trademark necks, which are snake-like in both length and striking speed, render the family unique among all the world’s turtles.



Snake Necked Turtles range from 6 to over 20 inches in length. Those with the most impressively-long necks are found in the genus Chelodina. Most of those native to Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia are strong swimmers with streamlined carapaces and fully-webbed feet. Others, such as the New Guinea Snapping Turtle (Elseya novaeguineae) have shorter (but still long!) necks and somewhat domed shells. All withdraw the neck into the shell on a sideways angle rather than straight back, as is typical for “regular” turtles.


The South American members of the family vary greatly in appearance, and do not have the outlandishly-long necks typical of their Australasian cousins. One of these, the Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriatus), is perhaps the world’s most unusual turtle. The broad flattened head of this aquatic creature, adorned with skin tubercles and flaps, and bearing a long, pointed snout, does not appear to belong to a turtle…or to any animal for that matter!

Neck withdrawn (New Guinea Snapping Turtle)The skin flaps may attract fish, which are sucked into the huge mouth when the throat distends, creating a vacuum-like action. Those I’ve kept (please see photo) have also accepted tadpoles, shrimp and other aquatic invertebrates. Ranging from Venezuela and Surinam to Columbia, eastern Peru and northern Brazil, this black water river denizen commands high prices in the pet trade, and is best reserved for well-experienced keepers.



Snake Necked Turtles are found in Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia and South America. With the exception of the equally-unusual Fly River Turtle, they are the only freshwater turtles native to Australia and New Guinea.



Most Australasian species spend the majority of their lives in water, emerging only to bask or deposit eggs. South American representatives vary in their habits – the Mata Mata Turtle is completely aquatic but others, such as the Twist Necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala), spend some time on land.


Depending upon the species, fast-moving rivers, swamps, lakes, flooded grasslands, tidal streams and other aquatic habitats are occupied.


Twist necked Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by

Care and Feeding

Snake Necked Turtles are highly carnivorous, although some add fallen fruit and aquatic plants to the diet. Those with very elongated necks, such as the Giant Snake Necked Turtle (Chelodina expansa), strike at swimming fish with lightning speed, and rarely miss. In my experience, only the Common Snapping Turtle and some of the Softshells (most notably the huge Narrow-Headed Softshell, Chitra indica), can equal their amazing striking speed; none snare fish so efficiently.


Fish are favored by most, but tadpoles, crayfish, snails, carrion, worms, and insects are also taken; larger species occasionally add small lizards, frogs, snakes, and mammals to the diet.


Pet Snake Necks fare best on a diet comprised largely of whole organisms such as earthworms, occasional pre-killed pink mice, crayfish and fresh water minnows and shiners. A steady diet of goldfish has been linked to several health concerns among Mata Mata Turtles, so in zoos we avoid or strictly limit their use in general.   Super mealworms, roaches, crickets and other insects can be used to vary the diet. Many refuse dry turtle foods, at least initially, but the products sold by Zoo Med and other well-respected companies are worth experimentation.


The calcium requirements of all species are likely quite high, with whole freshwater fishes being the most important source of this mineral. Some have done well without UVB exposure, but most successful private and professional keepers provide access to a UVB bulb.


All Australasian and most South American species are sizable, active turtles that require spacious aquariums equipped with sturdy basking sites, heaters and powerful filtration. While a 55 gallon aquarium might suit the smallest Snake Necks, larger species need tanks of several hundred gallon capacity, or commercial turtle tubs and ponds.

Temperatures should range from 72-80 F, with a basking site of 85-95 F, but the requirements of each species vary somewhat. Please post below for detailed information on the individual turtles in which you are interested.



Further Reading

Reptile Aquariums and the Nitrogen Cycle

Nest Sites for Captive Turtles

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