Salamanders and Newts
©1993 Melissa Kaplan
There is little distinction between the amphibians known as "newt" and "salamander." What is called a salamander in the Americas may well be called a newt in Europe. Some apply the name "salamander" to the fully aquatic and fully terrestrial animals, while applying the name "newt" to those animals that live on land from late summer through winter, entering water to breed in the spring. For the sake of simplicity, we well refer to all types as "salamanders."
Often mistaken for lizards, salamanders (sometimes called "sallies" by people who raise them) have soft, moist skin covering their long bodies and even longer tails. They have no scales, claws or external ear openings. The larva are sometimes confused with the frog tadpoles, but their heads do not get as large as the tadpoles. They have feather gill structures present just behind the head on the sides of the neck area, and their front legs develop first; frogs lack the external gill structures, and their hind legs erupt before their forelegs.
The majority of the salamanders and their larva are carnivorous, taking in insects, small invertebrates; the large adults eat fish, frogs and other salamanders. Secretive, essentially voiceless animals, they are chiefly nocturnal, hiding under fallen logs and damp leaf litter during the daylight hours. The larvae begin feeding immediately after hatching, devouring tiny aquatic animals.
There are three types of salamanders: totally aquatic, semi-aquatic, and completely terrestrial; some of the latter are arboreal. The aquatic live out their complete life cycles in the water. The semi-aquatic live primarily on land, hibernating during the winter, and enter the water as breeding season begins. After mating and egging is complete, they once again return to land. The terrestrial salamanders spend their entire lives on land, rarely entering the water though they are never far from it. Early born young will reach the terrestrial stage by the end of the year; late born young usually overwinter as larvae, metamorphosing the following spring.
You will need a fitted lid for the tank. Salamanders can climb, using body secretions for suction. The lid is also a useful place on which the required lighting can be placed.
Heating can easily be accomplished by use of an aquarium water heater and lighting. Using a submersible water heater will both warm the water and increase the humidity through evaporation. Terraria and the land area in vivaria may be heated by use of a light (but a white light must never be lit at night). Terraria may also be heated and humidified by placing a submersible heater in a bottle or jar of water.
Undertank heating pads may also be used, as may heat lamps. Extreme care must be taken with heat lamps to be sure that they do not kill the plants and that they do not make the enclosure too hot. While lamps can be moved closer and farther away from the tank which allows for some adjustment, you have to be there to do it, and several hours at too high a temperature may be all that is needed to kill the plants - and the salamanders.
A temperature gradient must be provided in order for the salamanders to thermoregulate themselves; they do this by moving back and forth between warmer and cooler areas. This is easily accomplished by designating one side of the tank as the warm side. The resulting natural gradient towards the cool side.
In the wild, there is usual a noticeable drop in temperature at night; it is best to drop the temperature in the enclosure by as much as 12 F at night.
If the lights are mounted inside the aquarium lid, the opening must be covered with a mesh to prevent the salamanders from coming into direct contact, or even too close to, the light bulb.
You can become yourself a hunter, searching for food under rotten logs and other debris. Pillbugs, beetles, earthworms, small millipedes, insects, aphids for newly metamorphosed larvae, small moths and other night-flying insects are suitable for native terrestrial and semi-aquatic sallies; aquatic sallies require small aquatic invertebrates which can be netted from ponds and streams. Small crustaceans such as Daphnia and water fleas can be found in waters with high algal content; check ponds during summer months for these, or buy them at your local aquarium shop, along with brine shrimp. DO NOT introduce carnivorous insect larvae such as dragonflies or water beetles which may eat tiny salamander larvae. All in all, it may be easier to order the bulk of the live prey you require from mail-order Prey Sources.
Feed daily only as much as the animals will consume at one time. In terrestrial tanks, a few living leftovers can left in the tank, but no new food should be offered until the leftovers are consumed. Feeding a wide variety of prey will help insure the sallies get a balanced diet. Non-hibernating species should have their food dipped in vitamins two to three times a week during the winter months.
Since salamanders are attracted to prey by its movement, they do not take readily to killed prey. Some may be induced to eat small strips of raw beef or dead prey, but this should not be relied upon. Some prey may be grown at home: fruit flies, mealworms and beetles, earthworms, whiteworms and crickets. The benefit to raising your own prey is that you do not have to worry about not having to go out and collect prey, and you can ensure your prey eat healthy foods, thus making them healthier for your sallies.
When they must be handled (such as when selecting one at a pet store, transferring it from it's travel container to permanent enclosure or when injured), your hands must first be washed in hot soapy water, being careful to remove all traces of the soap. Ideally, a fish net should be used to remove them from the water, and the net manipulated to enable you to check over the animal. If you must hold them, gently scoop them up, and take care to fully support them with your hand, using your second hand to assure they do not fall. Wash your hands thoroughly again when you are done handling them.
A note on keeping different species together in one tank: many species cannot tolerate the toxins produced by other species. Putting them together may result in the deaths of one or more species.
Transport salamanders in a sturdy box (such as a plastic shoe box with holes drilled in the lid) outfitted with damp moss, and keep it from getting too cold or too hot.
Selecting a Salamander
Animals should be plump without being bloated; bones should not be visible in the rib, abdominal or hip area (signs of malnutrition). The skin should be clear - no cuts, scratches, discolored patches. Eyes too should be clear and alert; there should be no sign of inflammation (sensitivity to light is, however, normal in nocturnal animals) or secretions.
The animals should be skittish, wary of you, always trying to escape. A quiet "tame" one is not--it is sick.
Always quarantine new animals for several weeks (ideally, several months) to assure that they are indeed healthy. Putting a sick one in with an established colony may well wipe them all out.
Common Ailments Relating
to the Captive Environment
Open wounds can become easily infected, especially in an environment which has not been kept clean. Wounds are most likely to occur during the first few weeks when the animal is becoming acclimated; leave it alone as much as possible during this time.
Fungal infections are particularly troublesome-common and often fatal.
Failure to hibernate will not only affect their ability to breed, but it may shorten the animals' life as well. Hibernation is an important part of their life cycle, one we may not yet fully understand. Although it may not be much fun having an "empty" tank sitting around for several months each year, the anticipation of the spring emergence should be enough to ensure your patience!
While many human and veterinary drugs and topical solutions are safe for use with reptiles and amphibians, amphibians do present a problem due to their extremely sensitive, permeable skin. Be sure to rinse out tanks and furnishings completely before replacing the amphibians. Do not use disinfectants or cleaners which may be toxic or are known to be toxic to other animals.
Betadine® (povidone-iodine), which is frequently used on reptiles, should not be used on amphibians. Instead, when the need for a topical antiseptic arises, use Bactine®, the liquid antiseptic used for years on children's scrapped knees and sunburns.
Keep the salamander enclosures scrupulously clean. They are havens for all kinds of bacterial and fungal organisms. Do not use wild-collected soil, plants, rocks, etc., without first sterilizing them.
Books of Interest
Salamanders and Newts: A Complete Introduction, by Byron Bjorn (1988). NJ: TFH Publications.
The Completely Illustrated Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians, Fritz Jurgen Obst, et. al. (1988). NJ: TFH Publications.
Keeping and Breeding Amphibians, by Chris Mattison (1992). NY: Sterling Publishing Inc.
Breeding Terrarium Animals, by Elke Zimmermann. NJ: TFH Publications.
Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians, by John Breen. NJ: TFH Publications.
Axolotls, by Peter Scott. NJ: TFH Publications.
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