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

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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 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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