Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Salamanders and Newts

©1993 Melissa Kaplan


Natural History
Salamanders, newts and caecilians (a legless, salamander-type animal) all belong in the order Amphibia along with frogs and toads, ancestors of the first aquatic vertebrates to begin to colonize that other earthly environment - land. Comprising a mere 350 species out of the 4000 or so known species of amphibians, salamanders and newts are found only in the Americas and in the temperate zones of Northern Africa, Asia and Europe.

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.


Aquatic (Aquaria)
Beginning with a sturdy waterproof aquarium, washed aquarium gravel is used to line the tank. Lay it two inches deep in the front of the tank, gradually sloping it up to three inches in back (or lay out the aquarium from side to side). Aquatic plants can be planted, but bear in mind that the larger salamanders are rough on their environment and you may regularly need to replace the plants. Check with your local aquatics store for plants.

Semi-Aquatic (Vivaria)
A large sturdy aquarium will need to be divided in half; a piece of glass or Plexiglas can be glued (use aquarium silicone cement) in the middle of the tank. Fill the water half with an inch of aquarium gravel or coarse sand; some water plants may be placed in here as well. Create a sloping rock gradient so the salamander can climb out of the water and get onto the land. The land side should ideally have a couple of holes drilled in the bottom of the tank to ensure good drainage. Put coarse sand or washed aquarium gravel in the bottom to a depth of about two inches. Top with sterile potting soil, peat moss or garden loam (available at nurseries). Top this with a piece of turf or clumps of moss. Place pieces of bark, rocks, "rock" caves or clay pot shards around for the salamander to hide and sleep under. Some small potted terrestrial plants may be planted on this side.

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.

Terrestrial (Terraria)
Set up the tank as for the land area above, but use the entire tank. Terrestrial sallies do require high humidity, so plants and moss will help achieve this, as will a dish of water. The evaporation will help maintain humidity levels. As with the vivaria, the terraria also requires a lid.

Salamanders from temperate climates will not need special heating as long as they can be kept at the same temperatures they would encounter in their native habitat. Tropical and semi-tropical species do require supplemental heating; this is especially crucial when keeping tropical and subtropical species in climates that get very cold at night.

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.

While salamanders are nocturnal (except some aquatic species during breeding season), light is essential for them in the regulation of their seasonal clocks--very important if you plan to breed them. As sunlight filtering in through the aquarium glass may increase the temperature too much, a broad-spectrum light should be used. These lights will also benefit any plants you have in the tank. Using an appliance timer, set the light to go on and off automatically, increasing and decreasing the number of hours it is on based on the photoperiod found in the animal's native environment.

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.

Ventilation must be provided without causing drafts. This will prevent the atmosphere inside the tank from becoming foul and will help reduce the organisms growing in the water or soil. Ideally, both the top and the upper part of at least two sides of the tank should be mesh of a gauge just small enough to prevent the sallie from squeezing through. Acrylic and Plexiglas tanks can be drilled with rows of quarter-inch holes. Aquatic and semi-aquatic tanks can be ventilated with an aquarium aerator. This consists of a pump to which an air line is attached, and an airstone (or bubbler) attached to the line and placed inside the water. By sending molecules of water up into the air, it causes air circulation and helps humidify the tank. It also oxygenates the water, and is an essential part of raising larvae. Note that even with the humidity created by the airstone and body of water inside the tank, most species will require supplemental misting several times a day. Without the proper humidity (about 50%) salamanders will soon desiccate and die.

Water Filtration
The water will get dirty fast, and so must be filtered. The type of filter you need will depend upon the volume of water in the tank. The smaller the filter to water volume ratio, the more often the filter medium will need to be changed. Creatively set up, the return water can be rerouted to simulate a waterfall or tiny stream.

Aquatic salamanders respond to odor, movement or touch; terrestrial ones respond to movement. While captive species will often happily eat the easily available mealworms, the worms do not have the complete nutrition the sallies require and must only be fed as a part of a well-rounded diet.

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.

In a word: don't. Sallies are not suitable for holding or petting. The oils in our skin is toxic to them - they cannot tolerate the salts or the heat of our hands. In addition, many salamanders secrete toxic fluid from their skin which can cause intense irritation to human mucous membranes.

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
Starting off with a healthy animal will make it that much easier to keep it that way. The key to buying a healthy animal is to know what to look for. Take a look at the pet shop and the terraria. Dirty, smelly, untidy shops and enclosures that are overstocked, dirty, or not set up to provide the proper environment (water, land, heat, light, furnishings) are almost a guarantee of getting a stressed, sick animal.

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
Nutritional disorders occur when inappropriate or unvaried diets are fed. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can deform and stunt growth, affect the functioning of the nervous system, eyes and digestive system.

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.

Salamanders from cooler climates bury themselves in soil or in the mud at the bottom of ponds, going deep enough to avoid frost and to maintain an even temperature. During this time their metabolism is greatly reduced, thus reducing the amount of energy (calories) burned in the effort just staying alive.

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!

Medical Note...
Amphibians should be handled as little as possible as the secretions from our skin are harmful to them.

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.

Please note...
I am by no means an expert on amphibians. Compared to many people out there, I'm barely knowledgeable about their biology, natural history and captive care. So, please do your amphibs a favor and post your questions to the Amphibian forums at or the many amphibian email lists available on the net.

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