The Fake Lizards: Salamanders and Newts

Although often mistaken for a type of lizard due to their similar body shapes salamanders and newts are in fact members of the Amphibian family. They originate from the Americas and the temperate regions of North Africa, Asia and Europe – and in many cases, the terms “salamanders” and “newts” are interchangeable, applying to the same animals. They are included in this website due to their often being mistaken for lizards and will be referred to collectively as salamanders for ease of reference.

So What are Salamanders?

The most obvious difference to lizards is their skin which, like all amphibians, is soft and moist with no scales, claws or external ear openings. Salamanders can be terrestrial, semi-aquatic or completely aquatic and some are even arboreal, living exclusively in trees. Unlike reptiles, salamander young go through a developmental phase where they look distinctly different from the adults – in fact, many have feathery gill structures at the back of their heads and legs which only develop later in the life cycle. Like lizards, however, the many salamanders are carnivorous, eating everything from insects and small invertebrates to fish, frogs and even other salamanders. They are secretive animals, making no noise and spending most of their time hiding under fallen logs and damp leaf litter during the day, only emerging under the cover of darkness.

How do I Keep Salamanders?

Like lizards, salamanders require an artificial thermal gradient set up for them to allow thermoregulation. Those from the tropical climates will also require supplementary heating. This is usually provided using an aquarium water heater and lighting. Note, though, that if you use a submersible water heater, this will warm the water and cause evaporation, increasing humidity levels in the enclosure. For terrestrial salamanders, you can provide heat through an incandescent bulb although you can still provide heat and humidity simultaneously by using a submersible water heater in a jar of water. Alternatively, you can use undertank heating pads but make sure that they are not so hot, they kill plants or overheat the enclosure, which can kill the salamander.

As most salamanders are nocturnal, providing a night-day cycle through sufficient periods of light, is actually very important. A broad spectrum light source should be used as natural sunlight may be too powerful and overheat the tank. An appliance timer can be set so that the appropriate number of hours of light is provided. Remember, always shield any light sources inside the tank to prevent the salamander from accidentally burning itself.

Due to the damp environment, a salamander tank is a haven for all kinds of bacterial and fungal organisms. Thus, keep it scrupulously clean and have an effective water filtration system. If you are adding any natural features, such as plants and rocks, make sure they are thoroughly sterilised first. Make sure also that you provide sufficient ventilation through the tank to prevent the atmosphere from becoming foul. Aquatic and semi-aquatic tanks can be ventilated using an aquarium aerator. Having said that, maintaining levels of humidity (at least 50%) is very important as amphibians will die if they are allowed to dry out so make sure you mist the enclosure several times a day.

What do I Feed Salamanders?

The most easily available food source is meal worms and although captive salamanders will happily eat these, they do not provide a nutritionally complete diet. Therefore, it is important that you supplement with other food items to provide a well-rounded diet. One way you can do this is to collect from the wild, looking under fallen logs and in leaf debris. Terrestrial and semi-aquatic salamanders will eat pillbugs, beetles, earthworms, small millipedes, insects, small moths and other night-flying insects while aquatic species need small aquatic invertebrates such as small crustaceans (eg. Daphnia and water fleas) and brine shrimp, which you can net from ponds and streams. In many cases, you can order many of these prey items from specialist suppliers.

Be careful about leaving too much food in the tank unconsumed and don’t offer new food items until all left-overs have been completely consumed. Salamanders are usually attracted to their prey by movement so it is difficult to induce them to eat pre-killed prey – this means you will have to keep a source of live prey ready.

Hands Off!

Perhaps the biggest difference in having a salamander pet as opposed to a lizard is that you cannot handle them – at all. Due to their amphibian skin, the salts and oils on our skin are toxic to them and they cannot tolerate the heat of your hands. Furthermore, many salamanders themselves secrete toxic fluids from their skins which can cause serious irritation in humans. If you have to handle salamanders, (eg, for transport or transfer), try using a fish net. If you must hold them in your hands, make sure that you wash your hands very thoroughly in hot, soapy water first and that all traces of soap have been rinsed off. And obviously, wash your hands thoroughly again when you have finished handling them.

While they may not be as interactive as other animals, salamanders can still make fascinating and rewarding pets.

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