How to Care for Your New Tiger Salamander
Sort of a "New Kid on the Block"

  
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Tiger Salamander Factoids

Origin

USA, Canada, Mexico

Temp

Room Temp

Attitude

Chases foods.  Snaps.

Schedule

Flexible

Lighting

Prefers lower light

Maximum Size

A little over a foot

Habitat

Likes to burrow

Security

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LA
Pile of Iowa tiger salamanders.

LA
Good old' Iowa salamander -- a young one -- so not really "old."  Lotsa spots.

LA
We shipped this "yellow-spotted salamander" in from California.  


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Another good old Iowa Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum.

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Not all "tigers" are pretty.

 

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Not all look the same.

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Three new guys.  Lots of variation in their spot patterns.


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Spotted salamanders shipped in from a southern supplier.

Origins.  We put “new kid” in the title above in quotes because salamanders have been around for years.  In high school science, we learned salamanders could actually regenerate missing limbs.  But people were into salamanders long before that.

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Six-inch fire salamander.  One of the guys that started the legend.

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Two-inch fire salamanders newly arrived.  Still pricy.

 

The Legend.  At one time people thought salamanders could live in fire.  Salamanders would suddenly appear when new wood was thrown on the fire (because they were hiding in the wood).  One wood stove was even named the salamander because of this belief.

LA
Does he look like tasty bait?  Way too expensive these days.

Fish Bait?  In some parts of the country salamanders (usually their larval form) are so common and cheap they are ("were" probably more appropriate these days) sold as fish bait.  When his larvae started maturing, one bait dealer sold us hundreds of young salamanders at an unreal low price.  He wanted nothing to do with them.  This was years ago, before salamanders became scarce.  Since most amphibians taste nasty, these must be bait for very hungry fishes.  Salamanders feel like they’re made out of rubber – wiggly rubber.

Not at all Common these Days.  We said salamanders were cheap prematurely.  Looks like they still cost more than we'd expect.  We remember our uncles seining them up by the rusty five-gallon bucketsful.  They called them "mudpuppies."   Best of all, salamanders require very little in habitat expense.  They need no special heaters, no special lights, or exotic foods.  And since they’re not big enough to be destructive, they don’t rip their quarters apart.  They’re easy to keep.  Update:  We've gone three years without finding any quantities of salamanders on price lists. Ditto their larvae.

LA 
Salamanders can't climb glass (too heavy), but they can get out of shallow cages.

Tiger Salamanders. You’d have to call these critters wide-spread.  Tiger salamanders grow any place near small bodies of water.   Ambystoma tigrinum grow all over the U.S., and in Canada and Mexico.  They look different in different parts of the country but all are a basic dark color with lighter spots.  Except for the grey ones with black spots.

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He's getting way too many crickets every day.  Another Iowa "tiger salamander."

Iowa Connection.  Tiger Salamanders also grow wild in Iowa.  They breed by the thousands in small farm ponds – particularly the shaded ones.  Salamanders breed nearly a month earlier than frogs -- probably so their larvae can eat frog tadpoles.  They survive in catfish-free waters.  Channel catfish pretty much clean out salamanders.

Secretive.  But you won’t find Salamanders running across your front yard like rabbits.  Full sun would dry them out very quickly and kill them, so they move around at night.  Dew is their best friend.  Worms and Salamanders come out at the same time – much to the delight of the Salamander.  They spend their days holed up like Saddam.

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Like frogs, salamanders cannot survive if they dry out.  They need moisture.

Moisture.  If you want to capture your own Salamanders, you’re likely to find them under rotting logs near small, permanent bodies of water.  In autumn, they often fall into basement window wells and hide under the layer of dead leaves on the bottom.  The leaves keep their skins moist.

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Salamanders start life as tadpole-like (and tadpole-eating) critters called
Water Dogs.

Amphibians.  Like any other amphibian, salamanders start life as an egg in a blob of jelly-like slime.  Frog and toad tadpoles eat algae and tender vegetation.  Baby salamander “tadpoles” (better known as “Water Dogs”) eat anything that moves.  They start on small water critters such as infusoria, daphnia, and gammarus.  

LA
Crickets go down much easier than nightcrawlers.

LA
But they do love their nightcrawlers.

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And they like goldfish.

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We introduced the excellent eater (the little guy) to a new arrivee.

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The new guy likes him a bit too much.  We had to separate them, of course.

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Nightcrawlers make a near perfect salamander food.

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Except when two salamanders glom onto the same nightcrawler.

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Big guys easily devour nightcrawlers.

Carnivores.  Salamander larvae quickly graduate to snacking on tadpoles, fish, and even each other.  Most will eagerly eat their smaller relatives.  On land they eat worms, crickets, and goldfish (if you hand feed them).

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Salamander larva.

Water Dogs.  Salamander larvae look like four-legged, flat-headed tadpoles with feathery external gills.  Because they have four legs, they’ve earned the name water dogs or mudpuppies.  Pros know that mudpuppies are a similar but much larger critter.  However, Iowans refer to them as mudpuppies, because most of us don’t know any better.

Water Dog Food.  Purina does not at this time make bags of Water Dog Chow.  However, once you can get your water dog to eat the reptile sticks, you are home free.  These are the best foods you can get – for nutrition, for price, and for convenience.  If your water dogs won’t eat the sticks (and many won’t), offer them:

     
Small Fish, 
     Earthworms,
     Plankton and Krill,
     Crickets and Mealworms.

LA
Water dogs just arrived from Florida June of 2004.

LA
By mid-July, they all turned into these plain Jane salamanders.

LA
Just not as colorful as our Iowa salamanders.

LA
Not as pretty but just as interesting to keep.

Availability.  At Aqualand we usually (or used to) see the larval form of the tiger salamander at about the four-to-six-inch stage.  Sometimes they’d come in as large as eight-inches long.  We feed the larger sizes goldfish.  Update:  We just don't see water dogs lately (2003-2004).  Updated Update:  We got a small supply of water dogs in September from a Florida supplier.

Not Good Mixers.  Water dogs are not good community tank residents, because they devour anything that moves (and many things that don’t move).  Keep your water dogs in their own special habitats. Keep them well fed because they eat each other.

Axolotls.  Axolotls are a different species, Ambystoma mexicanum.  Obviously, they come from Mexico.  These look just like water dogs but keep their juvenile form unless their pond dries up.  They even breed while keeping their juvenile form.  This is known as neotony.  We prefer the albino axolotls.  We treat them like regular water dogs.

LA
Fire salamander.  Similar but prettier and pricier.  Demands cooler (under 70o) temp.

LA
Not a kid's pet.  Gives off a nasty toxin if threatened.  Otherwise much like the tigers.

LA
Always wash your hand after handling fire salamanders.  Better, leave them alone.

Fire Dragons.  We used to get a larger, 10-to-12-inch, salamander larva called the Fire Dragon.  They turn into the fire salamander, Salamandra salamandra.  These European salamanders are also brighter colored than our tigers.  They easily live to 50 years of age.

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Male tiger salamander.

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Female at top.  Two males below.

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Not true love.  They're fighting over a nightcrawler.

Sexing.  Male salamanders are usually larger with longer tails.  Their testes swell up at breeding time (early spring).  You’ll notice this in newts also.  At breeding time, females grow plumper.

Temperature.  Neither the water dogs nor salamanders need heated quarters.  In the wild, they quietly breed very early in the spring – long before you hear the noisy frogs and toads croaking to attract females – while the water is still too cold to wade in.

LA
Here's a 22" hellbender, largest salamander in the U.S.  Rarely seen these days.

Water Dog Housing.  Keep water dogs just like you would keep a goldfish.  They need no heaters.  They need clean water.  The bigger the tank the better.  Good filtration helps a great deal.

LA
You can see these guys better over light-colored substrates.

Salamander Substrate.  The aquatic water dogs convert to land-dwelling critters known as tiger salamanders.  Drain their tank.  You need a moist substrate to keep their skin moist.  Some people use soil.  Yuck.  Mud works.  Your salamander will live, but you won’t like the looks.  Besides, your salamanders just blend right into the dark mud.  Much better substrates include:

     
Wet leaves;
     Peat moss;
     Gravel; 
     Sand;
or

as Paul (see Staff link) recommends:  Buss Worm Bedding.  He insists no other medium comes close to keeping salamanders healthy and happy.  Most salamander keepers prefer the fluorescent gravels.  Tiger salamanders do not blend into these colors.  You can find Buss worm Bedding at most bait stores.  We like the ground coconut fiber also.

Salamander Container.  Each salamander needs about a square foot of roving room.  Of course more is better.  A 10-gallon tank holds two quite easily.  The large critter carriers with built-in lids and carrying handles make inexpensive containers for single salamanders.  Clean their fronts gently.  Plastic scratches easily.

LA
Paludariums work nicely with salamanders.  Make sure he can climb out of his water.

Water.  You can cover part of the bottom of your tank with water or just provide a shallow water dish.  It’s harder to make a water dish look decorative.  The "rocky-looking" water dishes look snazzy.

Caves.  The bigger your salamander container, the better you can landscape it.  A ceramic or rock cave adds to your tank’s looks and also gives your salamander a real sense of security.  Build it and they will come.  He is not a critter that seeks the spotlight.  He will crawl out of any spotlight you shine on him.

Plants.  Live house plants with low light requirements add to your tank’s good looks.  Potted anubias works well.  On the econo side, try philodendrons or pothos.  Plastic plants are more practical for most people, because salamander tanks are rarely brightly illuminated.  The plants are for you.  Your Salamander couldn’t care less about plants – live or plastic.  And lots of people like to drape plastic vines from the lid for more of a “jungle look.”

Terraces.  Rather than a sterile-looking flat bottom, think in terms of several levels.  You can terrace with rocks or wood.  Or make quickie ledges with flexible strips of Plexiglas.

Rock Works.  Lay your salamander container on its side and glue rocks or wood to the back with aquarium glue, hot glue, or epoxy.  You crafters out there love this part.  Put in a few sprigs of greenery to spruce it up a bit.  Allow your glue sufficient time to harden.  This lets the irritating fumes evaporate.  When this setup gets soiled, you can then clean it with a strong hose.

LA
Salamanders eat some hefty meals at times.  In the wild, they miss a lot of meals.

Keep them Clean.  Salamanders eat like little piggies.  Expect to clean yours weekly.  

LA
Salamanders make great personal pets or school projects (ghost shrimp by his foot).

LA
Different strain of tiger salamander.

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Who says you can't teach a new salamander old tricks?  He ate the whole thing.

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Tiger salamanders can eat surprisingly large prey.

Buddies.  Most people like to keep their critters in pairs.  On the average, you can’t always sex these little varmints.  Other people like to keep other species with their salamanders.  Fine, as long as you don’t mix in critters small enough for your salamanders to swallow.  Consider toads, anoles, tree frogs, and red-bellied frogs.  If you set up your tank half-filled with water, then you can put tadpoles, newts, clawed frogs, and even fishes in the water layer.  Do not be shocked if his buddies disappear.

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Not a rare sight last millennium.  Seldom seen these days.

LA
Another U.S. salamander, the slimy salamander exudes a gluey goo when handled.

LA
Note how we don't touch these guys.

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Loss of habitat is apparently causing these guys to decrease in numbers.

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Grossly overweight Iowa tiger salamander.  Put him on the treadmill.

LA
Not so fat here -- much healthier for a long life.

Last Word.  Occasionally, someone will find an entire herd of salamanders.  If their habitat exists, you can find these critters in large quantities -- particularly in the fall.  LA.

© 1996, © 2003, © 2004, © 2005, © 2006  LA Productions

LA
Dusky salamanders -- supposedly the commonest salamander in the U.S.

LA
Fairly small little rascals.

LA
Dusky salamanders are excellent escape artists.  Keep yours well covered.

LA
Even though this tiger's nearly a foot long, he blends into neutral substrates.

LA
Coconut fiber enables them to dig in and to blend in.

LA
And coconut fiber sticks to them like fly paper.

LA
Rinsed off tiger salamanders look quite impressive.

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And they always show well over white.

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Tigers still do their best to dig in and hide.  He's right in the middle.

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Once they get used to their new quarters (and feeding schedule), they come out.

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