The Indigo Snake’s Less Expensive-Relative: Blacktail Cribo Care and Natural History

With its stunning coloration and reputation as a responsive pet, the Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon corais couperi) is on the wish lists of serious snake keepers worldwide. I had the good fortune to assist with a breeding/release program headquartered at the Bronx Zoo, but federal and state regulations, and astronomical prices, hamper private ownership. However, an equally large and striking relative, the Blacktail Cribo (Drymarchon melanurus melanurus), is far easier to acquire as a pet. My first encounter with this impressive snake in the wild came while I was working with Green Turtles in Costa Rica. Streaking through the seaside scrub on a hot afternoon, the beautiful 6-7 foot serpent impressed me as few others have. From then on, I searched for them whenever I was within their range, and eventually sighted specimens in Mexico and northern Venezuela. Zoos and private keepers in the USA have not shown too much interest, but thankfully that is changing. Experienced snake keepers looking for an “Indigo alternative” will, I’m certain, be very happy with this fascinating snake.


Blacktail Cribo

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by MKFI


Robust and alert, the Blacktail Cribo averages 5-6 feet in length, but may approach or slightly exceed 8 feet. Most individuals are light to yellowish tan with a jet black tail and black markings on the neck, but there is a great deal of variation throughout their large range. Some are almost yellow, while others lack the black tail entirely. Breeders are focusing their attention on particularly-attractive specimens, and will likely develop distinct color strains in time.


Where their ranges overlap, hybridization occurs with the Western or Texas Indigo Snake (D. corais) and with a related Blacktail Cribo subspecies, D. m. erebennus (also sometimes referred to as the Texas Indigo Snake).


Range and Habitat

The Blacktail Cribo ranges throughout much of Mexico south through Central America to northern Venezuela, Columbia and Peru. It’s presence in El Salvador, Panama and Peru needs further confirmation. The northern subspecies, sometimes known as the Texas Indigo Snake (D. m. erebennus), is found from southern Texas to Guatemala and Belize.


Typical habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Alejo Rendón (David

The Blacktail Cribo is less demanding in its habitat requirements than is its highly endangered cousin, the Eastern Indigo Snake. It tolerates some disturbance, and may colonize farms, the outskirts of small towns and cattle ranches. When I worked in Venezuela’s llanos country, ranchers reported that Blacktail Cribos were sometimes seen near storage sheds and outbuildings. Chicken coops were not common in the area, but I’m guessing they would be a favored stop-off for these ever-hungry brutes as well! Natural habitats include thorn scrub, brushy areas within the llanos, open woodlands, desert fringes and swamps.


Blacktail Cribos actively search for their prey, which includes a surprisingly-wide array of creatures. Rodents, rabbits, snakes, birds and their eggs, lizards, frogs, fish, small turtles are large insects have been reported as being taken. I have first-hand experience with impressive biting power packed by most rodents, and find it amazing that Cribos do not utilize constriction, but merely grab and swallow their victims!


Blacktail Cribos as Pets

Eastern Indigo Snake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by US Federal Gov’t

In common with the Eastern Indigo Snake (please see photo), wild caught or un-habituated individuals may make a show of flattening their heads, hissing and vibrating the tail when approached. However, with care and attention, most calm down. In fact, many consider them to be among the gentlest of the larger Colubrids, on par with captive reared Eastern Indigo Snakes.


Alert and quite aware of their surroundings, Blacktail Cribos seem much more responsive than is typical of snakes in general. However, they tend to move about when held, and can be difficult to control. Bites may occur even where well-habituated pets are concerned, as hungry individuals will strike at nearby movements.


The Terrarium

Cribo ownership should not be entered into lightly. They are very active, and do poorly in cramped quarters. A typical adult requires a custom-built cage measuring at least 6 x 4 feet.


A dry shelter, and another stocked with moist sphagnum moss, should be



Cypress mulch, eucalyptus bark and similar materials may be used as substrates. In common with Indigo Snakes, Cribos produce copious, watery waste products at frequent intervals…near daily cleaning is often necessary. Keepers weaned on Ball Pythons and similar snakes will be in for quite a surprise! Enclosures should be cleaned regularly with a reptile-safe product or diluted bleach or Nolvosan.


Due to this snake’s vigorous movements, newspaper tends to wind up crumpled in a corner. Washable terrarium liners be used for younger animals kept in aquariums.


Heat and Light

Blacktail Cribos favor cooler temperatures than might be expected, and fare best at a range of 70-78 F. An incandescent bulb should be used to create a basking spot of 85 F.


Large enclosures are necessary if a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) is to be established. Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow snakes to regulate their body temperature by moving from hot to cooler areas.


A ceramic heater, heat pad, or red/black reptile night bulb can be used to provide heat after dark.


Young tegu (common natural prey)

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Patricia Carabelli


As mentioned above, Cribos will eat nearly any animal that can be overpowered. Captives do fine on a straight rodent diet, but some private and professional keepers advise providing more variety. I favor this approach on general principles and because, unlike many other snakes, Cribos tend not to become “fixated” on one food item as opposed to others. Chicks, shiners, trout, eggs, and any pet trade rodents you may wish to offer will all likely be accepted.


Blacktail Cribos should be offered smaller meals than might be accepted by similarly-sized snakes of other species, as their jaws do not stretch to the same extent. Small to medium rats are about the largest food item that should be offered to adults. They have fast metabolisms, and may need to be fed a bit more frequently than each 7-10 days.


The 18-24 inch-long hatchlings may prefer fish scented rodents at first, but are easily weaned onto unscented mice in time.


Water for drinking and soaking should be available. Bowls are best filled to a point where they will not overflow when the snake curls up within, as damp conditions will lead to fungal infections of the skin and other health problems.



Captive breeding successes are increasing, but as with Eastern Indigo Snakes consistent results have been elusive. Pairs must be monitored carefully, as males may bite females during courtship. Please post below for further information, or to share your own experiences.


Further Reading

Indigo Snake Care

Tiger Ratsnake Care

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

Turtles and Tortoises: 5 You Should Never Keep as Pets

FI WITH ALL SNAPPERSo as not to alienate the many hardcore, dedicated turtle keepers among my readers, I’ll start off by qualifying the title. I know people who do quite well with 4 of the 5 species discussed in this article. But in addition to being very well-experienced, these folks have both the financial means and space to meet the challenges posed by these unique creatures. People who, for example, keep 2,000+ individual turtles in good health and can devote entire floors of commercial warehouses or 80 privately-owned ponds to their hobby (or “obsession”, as some may say!). Of course, the turtles covered here can be kept by those of more modest means, but they are, in general, not suitable for most private collections. Please be sure to post your own thoughts and experiences concerning these and similar species below, thanks.


To be honest, there’s no denying the allure of large, interesting turtles, and I’ve been most fortunate in having had the chance to indulge my passion for them. My own experiences with the turtles listed below came via jobs with animal importers in NYC decades ago, and later through a career at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos. Thanks in part to a “turtle-centric” Bronx Zoo curator, the opening of a 77,000 gallon Asian river exhibit allowed me to work with large turtles on a grand scale. Another unique opportunity came in 1997, with the seizure of nearly 10,000 turtles of several species in Guangzhou, China. Many were sent to the USA, where we helped to place them in private and public collections (please see the article linked below).


Fly River Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Junkyardsparkle

Fly River Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta)

Unless you are another Fly River Turtle, it’s hard not to like these engaging creatures (they are notoriously aggressive towards one another). Equipped with a pig’s nose, sea turtle-like flippers and an abiding curiosity, they are among the most unique turtles one can imagine. They are also very responsive…those I cared for would swim about my legs when I entered their exhibit, soliciting food and rubbing against me. One in the Bronx Zoo’s collection is now at least 70 years of age.


Unfortunately, despite being protected within their native range, Fly River Turtle hatchlings are still being collected and sold. They are among the most active of the world’s turtles, and even small ones require far more room than most people can provide. Adults may top 40 lbs. in weight, and are nearly impossible to accommodate at home. They rarely stop swimming, and my group seemed crowded even in a 77,000 gallon exhibit. And despite all that space, battles were a daily occurrence – how they managed to breed I’ll never know (literally, since the eggs incubated unseen within the exhibit!). A susceptibility to fungal and bacterial infections, often centered on the carapace, adds to the difficulties involved in keeping these unusual turtles.


Nile Softshells

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Lena Levin

Nile Softshell Turtle (Trionx triunguis)

Although certain populations are in decline, this huge aquatic turtle has a large range, and seems to be doing well in some areas. Youngsters occasionally appear in the trade, where they are quickly snapped-up despite steep price tags.


All softshells are active and interesting, but the Nile may reach 4 feet in length – far too large for all but an outdoor pond in the appropriately-warm region.


They can be quite aggressive as well. I’ll never forget a sub-adult kept by a friend. When approached, it would paddle out to the rim of its pool and seemingly “patrol” the area, with the head held high above the surface. Further advances were met with a lightning-fast strike.


Spurred Tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Baseballchck02

African Spurred Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)

This is the most commonly-kept of the giant Chelonians. They differ from the others covered here in that captive born hatchlings are readily and inexpensively available. They also grow much faster – few novices can imagine that their new palm-sized pet may reach 60 pounds in weight within 5 years, and eventually top 200 pounds. Proper accommodations necessitate an outdoor enclosure in a dry, warm locale. A ½ acre exhibit proved too small for a pair of 80 pounders under my care, and they pushed through or burrowed under a surprising array of barriers.


African Spurred Tortoises are extremely responsive to people, being described as “dog-like” by many. But despite an innate hardiness, they have very specific dietary needs which are misunderstood by many sellers and new owners. And as you can see from the terrier-tortoise story in the article linked below, they are also very tough customers.


Malayan Snail-Eating Turtle (Malayemys subtrijuga)

A delicate constitution rather than large size leads me to recommend against keeping this 6 inch-long Southeast Asian beauty. Fortunately, they now rarely if ever appear in the US trade, but untold numbers are still collected for Asian food markets.


The Malayan Snail-Eating Turtle first caught my eye decades ago, when it sometimes showed up, unexpected and un-named, mixed in with other imports. I read what little information I could find, and did manage to induce several to feed upon the 2-3 aquatic snail species that I collected and bred for them. However, then as now, this was not enough to sustain them long term.


Field studies have revealed that youngsters feed largely upon two snail species. Some adults add mussels, insects, fish and other items to the diet, but even these fail to thrive in zoos or private collections. I’ve spoken with people who have kept them in seemingly perfect situations, but all wind up frustrated. I continue to look for clues to their proper husbandry…please post below if you have any insights.


Alligator snapping turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany

Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macroclemmys temminckii)

The old fellow I’m posing with in this article’s first photo tips the scales at 206 pounds – is there any reason to discuss why this species might not be the best choice for most folks!? Looking more dinosaur-like than even the Common Snapping Turtle, Alligator Snapper hatchlings are produced by a few private breeders. Small and sedentary, and sporting their famous “fishing lure”, it easy to see why they are so hard to resist (I feel the same about Common Snappers, and hatch eggs each year despite first doing so over 50 years ago!).


As this largest of the Western Hemisphere’s aquatic turtles is in dire straits in the wild, captive breeding efforts are needed – but this majestic beast is best left to those with private ponds surrounded by nesting beaches.



Further Reading

Are You Ready for an African Spurred Tortoise?

Working with the World’s Largest Freshwater Turtles



Vampire Crab Care: 2 New Land Crab Species Found Among Pet Trade Animals

Geosesarma aurantium

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Various land crabs have long been available in the pet trade, but despite their brilliant colors and fascinating behaviors, few have caught on among terrarium keepers here in the USA. This changed a bit when several spectacularly-colored species, usually sold as Vampire Crabs or Red Devils, began showing up in the early 2000’s. Recent investigations into the natural history of these crabs resulted in the surprising finding that two species new to science have been kept and bred by hobbyists for at least 10 years!


Halloween Crab

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by (Bhny)


Crabs at the Bronx Zoo

I had long urged my bosses at the Bronx Zoo to pay more attention to terrestrial crabs, especially as many do so well in large planted exhibits. I was given some latitude, and happily established colonies of “Halloween Crabs” (please see photo), “Soap Box Crabs”, various members of the family Potomonidae and Land Hermit Crabs throughout the reptile house. We even kept the massive Coconut Crab for a (too brief!) period. But the time and money needed to study them properly never materialized, and I still wonder at the identity of some that passed my way. So I was quite happy to see that interest which germinated in the pet trade has resulted in an important discovery.


The New Species

According to a recent article in the journal Raffles Bulletin of Zoology (V. 63:3-13; 1/2015) two previously undescribed species have been found among pet trade animals commonly sold as Vampire Crabs. They were collected on Java, and have been named Geosesarma hagen and G. dennerle. Individuals vary in coloration, but in general they are bright orange and deep purple with cream blotches, respectively. Others I’ve kept, which exhibited similar lifestyles, sported shocking yellow eyes, brilliant red claws, and jet black carapace borders.


Christmas Island Red Crab

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by russavia

Land Crab Diversity

As crab enthusiasts know, Indonesia’s many islands, as well as others in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, support a fantastic array of terrestrial (and marine) crabs. From the unbelievably-large Coconut Crab to the spectacular migrations of Christmas Island’s Red Crabs (please see photos), the region’s crab diversity is unmatched anywhere on earth. Some small islands support a dozen or more species, which seem to fill niches taken elsewhere by reptiles, amphibians and small mammals (or monkeys, perhaps, in the Coconut Crab’s case!).


As seems to be true for the newly-described Vampire Crabs, many have long been isolated from relatives, so new species almost certainly remain to be found.


Vampire Crab Terrariums

Vampire Crabs and their relatives do best in moist, well-planted terrariums that allow climbing and burrowing opportunities. Live carpet moss and leaf litter over a topsoil/coconut husk substrate suits them well. Philodendron, Chinese Evergreen, Pothos, Cast Iron Plants and other sturdy species will add immensely to their quality of life and your enjoyment of them. Although only a mere 0.8-1.3 inches in length, these active little fellows will do best if given plenty of room.


Type terrariun

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jitka Erbenov

Although said to be nocturnal in the wild, most that I’ve kept were eager to forage by day once they settled in, especially if ample cover was provided. A temperature gradient of 75-85 F, and an ambient humidity level of 70% or higher should be established. Terrarium heat pads attached to the tank’s sides and red light bulbs will assist you in heating and observing your pets after dark.



Most terrestrial crabs feed opportunistically on almost any organic material that comes along. However, Vampire Crabs seem more inclined to seek and chase down live prey than do many others – so much so, in fact, that they remind me of that most voracious of inshore predators, the Blue Claw Crab!


t204362As we do not know their exact nutritional requirements, I provide a highly-varied diet for all terrestrial crabs. Vampires will readily accept Zoo Med Hermit Crab Food and many other diets formulated for terrestrial hermit crabs, freeze dried shrimp, frozen and flake foods marketed for tropical fishes, moist algae tablets and turtle chow, small live and dead crickets, black worms and other invertebrates, and some fruits and vegetables. Calcium blocks will be used by some species, and powdered calcium should be mixed into their food as well.


I especially like to offer fresh leaf litter and grass clippings – all land crabs, including the popular Terrestrial Hermit Crabs, will eagerly pick through this material for small invertebrates, plant shoots, moss, lichen, decaying leaves and other tidbits that likely provide important nutrients.

A shallow bowl of de-chlorinated water should always be available for soaking and breeding purposes (please see below).


Some keepers report that Vampire Crabs are less inclined than others to hunt down and consume their molting tank mates (they are defenseless until the new exoskeleton hardens). I, however, have no faith in crab “sociability”, and so advise you to include deep substrate and many hiding places…along with lots of food!



Unlike Coconut, Hermit and Fiddler Crabs, all of which require marine water for soaking and as a breeding site, Vampire Crabs have cut all ties with the ocean. Females carry their 20-50+ eggs about until they hatch or are ready to hatch, whereupon they are deposited in shallow pools of fresh water.


Crab enthusiasts will be especially happy to learn that Vampires have thoughtfully done away with the planktonic larvae that have long prevented us from breeding others in captivity. Instead, tiny, fully formed crabs (crablets?) emerge from the eggs. They are said to chase down fruit flies and springtails in adult fashion; related species under my care have accepted other typical crab foods as well.



Further Reading

Coconut Crab and Land hermit Crab Care

The Best Substrate fir Terrestrial Hermit Crabs


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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