2014 is Named “The Year of the Salamander”


Japanese Giant Salamanders

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by V31S70

Salamanders and newts, often overlooked by pet keepers, zoos and environmentalists alike, are getting some much-needed exposure this year.  Led by the Partnership for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, a consortium of environmental groups has designated 2014 as the Year of the Salamander.  I’m very pleased, as past efforts, including the Year of the Snake and the Year of the Lizard, have done much to advance reptile conservation.


Even among my Bronx Zoo colleagues, I was considered somewhat strange when I began writing a book on newt and salamander natural history and captive care some 17 years ago.  But I have been very lucky, salamander-wise.  Perhaps because so few people were interested, many fascinating opportunities came my way.  Whether crossing the USA and Japan in search of my favorite species or caring for those in my home collection – several of which are now aged 25 to 35 – I’ve never tired of learning about them, and remain as passionate today as I was in childhood.


Salamander Central

Salamander enthusiasts based in the USA are quite fortunate, as more species live here than anywhere else on earth.  In fact, the southern Appalachian Mountains, a salamander hotspot, are home to 10% of the world’s known species.  And the sheer diversity of their sizes, lifestyles and behaviors is beyond belief – colorless cave-dwellers that never see the light of day, yard-long eel-like species armed with sharp teeth, tiny lichen-colored rock dwellers, colorful beauties, terrestrial giants large enough to raid mouse nests and so many more.


Fire Salamander

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Lior Fainshil

My zoo-keeper and hobbyist friends in other countries are astounded that those living in the epicenter of salamander diversity do not devote more of our efforts to these amazing creatures.  I’ve written about some of our species in other articles…please post below and I’ll send links.


Year of the Salamander Activities

The Year of the Salamander effort is spearheaded by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC), and was preceded the Year of the Turtle, Snake and Lizard. This year, PARC will be joined by the Center for Conservation Biology, the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians, Amphibian Ark, and other notables.  In addition to field research and captive breeding programs, public education will be a major component of each group’s activities.


I’m happy to see that input from interested non-professionals will be solicited.  This is an all-too-rare step, despite the fact that professionals with financial resources cannot begin to address the conservation needs of the world’s threatened amphibians.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Arne Hodalič

Salamander Populations Plummeting Worldwide

Frog extinctions have been very much in the spotlight in recent years.  Fueled by emerging diseases (please see below) that have exacerbated the threats posed by habitat loss and other long-standing concerns, frog declines have been documented around the globe.


Salamanders, which are usually harder to find and study (after all, none advertise their presence by croaking!), are likely in just as much trouble as frogs.  In fact, the IUCN classifies 49.8% of the world’s salamanders as threatened or endangered, as compared to 31.6% of the world’s frogs!  Considering that salamanders are so poorly studied, the conservation picture could actually be far bleaker than the IUCN’s frightening statistics indicate.  Hopefully, the Year of the Salamander effort will divert much needed interest and funds to salamander conservation.


Specific Threats

The future of the world’s salamanders and newts is put in jeopardy by many of the same problems that afflict frogs – habitat loss, road mortality during the breeding season, pollution, invasive species (especially fish) and others.  Unique threats also exist – for example, Tiger Salamanders, classified as endangered in some US states, are legally used as fish bait in others (please see article below)!


While the devastating effects of Chytrid and Ranavirus infections on frog populations are well known, related salamander studies are in short supply.  However, in 2013, a new strain of Chytrid was found to be killing Fire Salamanders in Europe…I fear that this is merely the tip of the iceberg.


Help and Input Needed

Please check out my salamander conservation articles, some of which are linked below, and share your thoughts and observations by posting in the comments section of this article.  A book I’ve written, which addresses both natural history and captive care, may also be useful to those interested in helping these amazing amphibians.  I’ll be sure to highlight your feedback here, and will get right back to you concerning any questions you may have.  Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.


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.


Further Reading

Salamander larvae Still Being Used as Fish Bait in the USA

New Population of Endangered Axolotls Found…in Mexico City!

Twelve Rare US Amphibians in Need of Protection





Collecting Insects as Reptile and Amphibian Food – Traps and Tips


CICADAS ON SHIRTAlthough it’s below freezing here in NY, my thoughts are straying to a favorite warm-weather activity – collecting insects for my herp collection.  Invariably, I find species that are new to me, and others that I wind up keeping alive in small terrariums.  Drawing on a lifetime of collecting for my pets and the animals under my care at the Bronx Zoo, I’ve written articles on capturing, using, and breeding many invertebrates, including sap beetles, leaf litter dwellers, “meadow plankton”, earwigs, sow bugs, grasshoppers, and many others.  In this article, I’ll summarize my favorite collection techniques and traps.  Links to articles containing further information are also included.  As I and other herp-keepers have barely scratched the surface of this topic, please be sure to post your own thoughts and experiences below.


The Best Method, Bar None

The best collecting tip I can provide is that you team up with a small child.  As you can see from my photos, their enthusiasm cannot be out into words, and it is contagious.  What’s more, a child’s curiosity, size and sharp eyesight will increase your catch – and your enjoyment of the experience – immensely.  My little collecting partner has found invertebrates that I’ve never seen before, even in areas I’ve explored for decades!


t239545The Zoo Med Bug Napper Insect Trap

The Zoo Med Bug Napper is a scaled-down version of the traps I used to collect food for the Bronx Zoo’s reptiles, amphibians, and birds. It is very effective at snaring moths, beetles, midges, and other flying insects.  Along with field sweeping (see below), this trap has the potential to yield the greatest numbers and varieties of insects.  Checking it each morning is a thrilling experience, and finding a species new to you – or even to science – is a real possibility.


VICTORY DANCEMeadow Plankton

This term is used by entomologists to describe the astonishing variety of invertebrates that can be collected by simply sweeping a net through tall grass.  The accompanying photo was taken after collecting in a tiny, overgrown field in the middle of a busy park.  Twenty minutes of “work” yielded 30-40 species, including spiders, leafhoppers, aphids, grasshoppers, mantids, bee flies, caterpillars and many others…and my nephew later spent hours poring over his books trying to identify our prizes.


Leaf Litter Invertebrates

A single acre of fallen leaves can be home to 3 tons (yes, tons!) of springtails, ants, beetles, spiders, millipedes and other invertebrates.  Many are tiny, and readily accepted by Poison Frogs and other small herps that must generally make do with only 2-3 food items.


To sample what’s out there, simply place a handful of leaf litter into a funnel, suspend the funnel over a jar and position a 100 watt bulb about 6 inches above the leaves.  Creatures seeking to escape the heat will move down the funnel and into the jar.  A damp paper towel placed at the bottom of the collecting jar will assure they survive until removed. More information.



Termites feature heavily in the diets of animals ranging from tiny toads to huge monitor lizards.  To make a termite trap, simply take a small plastic storage box and cut several holes of 2-3 inches in diameter into the 4 sides.  Stuff the box with damp cardboard (a termite delicacy, it seems) and you’re all set.  Search for termite nests beneath rotting logs, and place your trap about a foot away, buried so that the top of the box is flush with the surface.  The termites will establish feeding tunnels to the box, and can be removed as needed (leave the box in place so as not to disturb the tunnels).  More information.


Pitfall Traps

A bewildering assortment of creatures will stumble into a jar or can buried flush with the ground, but you can increase your catch by adding bait. A bit of ripe fruit, molasses, honey and some tropical fish flakes will lure beetles, snails, sow bugs and other invertebrates.  Be sure to keep some dead leaves in the trap to provide hiding places, and cover the opening with a board that is slightly elevated by small stones, to keep out rain.  More information.


Bush Beating

This simple yet effective collecting technique was developed by entomologists.  To collect insects in this manner, place a white, un-patterned sheet below a bush or tree, and beat the foliage with a stick.  That’s it!

For me, the biggest drawback to bush beating is the distraction factor – I just can’t resist closely checking the incredible assortment of caterpillars, beetles, ants, tree crickets, katydids, spiders and other tasty morsels that rain down.  Your catch will consist largely of arboreal species, which are especially-relished by tree frogs, flying and day geckos, smooth green snakes and other tree-dwelling herps.  More information.

Random Searching

By keeping a jar and net in my yard and near outdoor lights, I can easily add variety to my pets’ diets by collecting as time permits.  I also turn over rocks, look among flowers and weeds, scatter cover boards about, smear honey on trees and try anything else that comes to mind – some invertebrate will show up.

To explore other possibilities, please see my articles on collecting sap beetles, earwigs, sow bugs, grasshoppers, houseflies, mantis egg cases, cicadas and aquatic isopods.


Be careful when examining your catch, as potentially dangerous (to you and your pets) spiders, scorpions, hornets and other such creatures may be present.  Have a good field guide on hand if you are unfamiliar with local species, and use feeding tongs to handle animals if in doubt.


Do not use fireflies, “hairy” caterpillars, or any brightly-colored insects that you cannot identify.  Unless you are well-acquainted with local spiders, it is best to avoid them as well…harvestmen, or “daddy long-legs”, however, are harmless (and judging by my pets’ reactions, quite tasty!).


Please also see the articles linked below for information concerning possible pesticides and parasites.


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 Indiviglio.


Further Reading

Collecting Insects for Reptile Food: Pesticide Concerns

Wild Caught Insects as Herp Food: Dangerous Species


The Most Astonishing and Bizarre Newly-Discovered Frogs


Mimic Poison Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Gabsch

Be it the discovery of a new species in the middle of NYC or the revelation that Mimic Poison Frogs are monogamous, frog enthusiasts are accustomed to surprises.  But those revealed in the last few years have been especially interesting and unexpected…frogs with sheathed claws, tadpoles that feed upon their father’s skin and on tree bark, bird-eating, bird-voiced and lungless frogs, fanged tadpoles and much, much more.  Were I new to this field, I’d consider much of the following article as pure fantasy…but even after a lifetime of working with amphibians, I’m still shaking my head.


Note: please see the linked articles for further information on the frogs introduced here.



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Best Substrate for Hermit Crabs – Avoid Deadly Mistakes


Coenobita variabilis

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Vanessa Pike-Russell

I’ve had the good fortune of working with many species of terrestrial Hermit Crabs, including the unbelievably huge Coconut Crab (Birgus latro).  Most are surprisingly long-lived – for example, the species most commonly sold in pet stores (the Caribbean Hermit Crab, Coenobita clypeatus) can survive for 20 or more years if properly cared for!  We’ve learned a great deal about Hermit Crab captive needs over the years, but serious mistakes are still commonly made when it comes to hermit crab substrate choice.  The ability to successfully molt and form a new exoskeleton, and to survive the attacks of cage-mates during this dangerous time, hinges upon the substrate.  Even if all else is perfect, Hermit Crabs will expire long before “their time is due” if they do not have access to appropriate substrates of the correct depth.
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Providing Clean Water to Reptiles and Amphibians – The Nitrogen Cycle


Mexican Axolotl

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by ZeWrestler

Successful aquarists know the importance of monitoring the nitrogen cycle, and the lessons I learned while working for fish importers and sellers have served me well when caring for all manner of creatures.  When I began my career in zoos, I was surprised to find that reptile and amphibian keepers, while aware of the necessity for clean water, did not generally pay attention to understanding water chemistry and its effects on animal health.  That situation is much changed today, but professional and private herp keepers can still take some lessons from our aquarist friends. Awhile back, I helped establish an amphibian exhibit at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Ct.  I was not surprised when the aquarists there, despite lacking prior amphibian experience, excelled at their care and breeding.  Today we’ll look at how the nitrogen cycle functions and review some useful care techniques and products.


How Critical is Reptile and Amphibian Water Quality?

It’s important to understand that most amphibians, especially largely-aquatic species such as African Clawed Frogs and Mexican Axolotls, absorb water and dissolved chemicals over a much greater surface area than do fishes (scale-less fishes, such as eels, loaches and most catfishes, are similar to amphibians in this regard).  In fact, when we administer fish medications to aquatic amphibians, we always begin with a 50% or so dose…the amount recommended for fishes might kill or injure amphibians.


It follows that amphibians are often more sensitive to ammonia and other water-borne toxins than are fishes. My experience bears out the fact that ammonia poisoning is responsible for a great many sudden, unexplained amphibian pet deaths.  Reptiles are less susceptible to water quality problems than are amphibians, but certain species, such Tentacled Snakes and Soft-shelled and Fly River Turtles, seem sensitive to ammonia and pH levels.


Fly River Turtle

Uploadedto Wikipedia Commons by Faendalimas

What is the Nitrogen Cycle?

The nitrogen cycle can be summarized as the process by which nitrogen is converted to other organic compounds that are then utilized by plants and animals as food.  Nitrogen enters the water via dead animals and plants, decaying food, and animal feces and urates.  In herp enclosures, animal wastes are usually the primary sources of nitrogen.


Ammonia, the most toxic of the nitrogen-based compounds, may be ionized or un-ionized; it is most dangerous to aquatic animals in its un-ionized form. More of the water’s total ammonia becomes un-ionized as the temperature and pH increases.

Two types of aerobic (air-breathing) bacteria, which live on gravel, filter pads and other substrates exposed to oxygenated water, control the nitrogen cycle. Collectively, they are termed nitrogenous bacteria.


Nitrosomas bacteria convert ammonia to less-toxic compounds known as nitrites.  Nitrobacter bacteria convert the nitrites to nitrates.  Nitrates, the end product of the nitrogen cycle, are the least toxic of the nitrogenous compounds.


Managing the Nitrogen Cycle in Your Pet’s Home

Aquarists use the term “conditioning period” to describe the time that it takes for healthy populations of both types of nitrogenous bacteria to become established in a new tank.  This period varies in length, but usually falls in the range of 2-6 weeks.


Your aquarium’s conditioning period may be shortened by the addition of commercially-available live aerobic bacteria.  I’ve had good experience with Biozyme Freshwater Bacteria and Nutrafin Cycle.  Micro Lift Bacterial Water Balancer, specifically formulated for turtles, should also be considered.


You can also help the process along by introducing filter material from a well-conditioned tank and, where conditions permit, by using “live rock” and “live sand” (please post below for further info).  The frequent use of water quality test kits is essential. The pH level should be checked often as well, since the water may become acidic during the conditioning period.



Undergravel Filters

Although some of my younger readers will no doubt consider me a dinosaur for saying so, I still use and recommend undergravel filters in many situations.   They are simple to maintain, largely invisible to the eye, and essentially turn the entire substrate into a giant biological filter.  Where useful, power heads can be added to increase water follow though the gravel bed or to create a reverse-flow system (please see the article linked below).


Many public aquariums still maintain huge exhibits with undergravel filters alone.  At various zoos and in my own collection, I have used undergravel filters on large exhibits housing Tentacled Snakes, Northern Water Snakes, adult Snake-Necked Turtles, Largemouth Bass, and other creatures that are very hard on water quality and clarity.


I also favor fluidized bed filters, which are mounted outside the aquarium. They rely upon the same principles as do undergravel filters, and are especially useful where substrate is not used in the enclosure.


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 Indiviglio.


Further Reading

Using Undergravel Filters in Reptile and Amphibian Terrariums 


Using Bottled Aerobic Bacteria

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