Tiger Salamander Care
Care sheet kindly written by Danni Thompson. Thanks Danni!
Tiger Salamander Information
Salamanders are amphibians, meaning they have a life cycle which encompasses both life on land and in water. Tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) are unique in their reproduction. Tiger salamander larvae (always aquatic) can take up one of two forms: normal or cannibalistic morph; and adults can be either air breathing, air breathing cannibal morph or neotenic. Neoteny is when the adult salamander never changes from its larval form, and so remains aquatic and gilled but able to reproduce, much like an axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum).
The tiger salamander is the largest terrestrial salamander found in America. They can grow up to 14 inches long and can live for up to 20 years in captivity. Its range extends from Canada all the way down to Mexico and can be found from coast to coast in North America. As amphibians, they migrate to temporary ponds in late winter/early spring to breed. They are part of the Ambystoma genus, which is a group of mole salamanders, known so because they spend a large proportion of their time burrowed beneath the ground.
There are about 6 subspecies of tiger salamander, (eg barred or blotched tiger salamander) depending on where they are found within their range. Body pattern varies, generally according to where they are from, however it is very difficult to identify the subspecies without specific locality data or genetic testing. Be aware if collecting a tiger salamander from the wild, as different laws apply in different states, and many local populations are under legal protection. Tiger salamanders are notoriously difficult to captive breed, so if you are buying a tiger salamander, it is highly likely that it was wild caught.
In appearance, tiger salamanders are rather large and broad with small eyes and smiley faces. Their colouration varies from a dark green to black background with yellow markings in the form of blotches, spots and/or bars. They have 4 fingers and 5 toes.
Tiger salamanders are terrestrial. This means that they can be housed in either a glass tank or, for a much cheaper alternative, in a plastic storage box. The minimum size for one salamander should be around 80 litres or 17 gallons, however as with most animals, it is best to use a container as big as possible. About 5 inches of substrate needs to be provided to allow for burrowing. Best options include coco fibre, which can often be bought in exotic pet shops or online. Organic peat or topsoil used for gardening can also be used, but make sure it is free from chemical pesticides and herbicides. You can top the substrate with a layer of leaf litter or sphagnum moss, although this is not essential. As they are amphibians, the substrate always needs to be moist but not wet enough to be squeezed out. Regular misting with water will help to achieve this.
To reduce stress and provide places for your salamander to feel safe and secure, at least one hiding place per salamander should be provided. You can buy reptile/amphibian hides from shops, or use large pieces of bark, half clay pots etc. If you collect bark or materials from outside, it is important to boil them and/or freeze them before placing in the terrarium so as to kill off any parasites that may be present.
A shallow water bowl can be provided for your salamander. This is not to drink but as an emergency water supply if the substrate becomes too dry, and often salamanders will use their water bowls as a toilet. The water should be shallow enough for the salamander’s head to be above water as they are not keen swimmers. You can buy reptile/amphibian bowls specifically for this purpose from pet shops, or you can use a plastic bowl/box if budgeting. If the sides of the container are steep, provide something for the salamander to climb out on, such as a log or piece of bark.
Water quality is important. As salamanders are amphibian, they breathe and absorb water through their skin (cutaneous respiration). This makes them very sensitive to chemicals. When misting the terrarium or filling the water bowl, only use bottled water or dechlorinated water. Dechlorinator for fish tanks can be used for this purpose.
Plants can be put into the terrarium to make it more ‘wild’ and attractive to your salamander (or you!). Silk plants available in many pet stores are best suited for this purpose, as it avoids the issues of which plants are suitable and nontoxic to salamanders. Live plants directly into the substrate may not last long, as salamanders may uproot them when burrowing. You can even buy plants with suction pads which can be attached to the sides of the terrarium. This can also be of use in providing some shade to the salamander and reducing stress. If you do choose to have live plants, do plenty of research into which species are nontoxic and native to your salamanders’ natural range.
You can decorate the terrarium with stones and pebbles if desired, however it is important to make sure that any pebbles used are larger than the salamander’s head, to prevent them from accidentally ingesting the stones.
As they originate from North America, they are suited to a temperate environment. Temperatures around 22°C, or room temp, are suitable. They can happily tolerate really low temperatures, almost to freezing, however exposing them to temperatures over 25.5°C for long periods of time can be stressful and life threatening. You can buy thermometers to stick to your tank to monitor this. Tiger salamanders don’t require additional heating or lighting.
The tank should have a mesh lid to allow for ventilation. This can be any kind of mesh, including garden netting if you’re on a budget! This also prevents escape as salamanders are able to climb.
The tank should be cleaned and substrate fully replaced once every month or two, depending on how soiled it is. When cleaning the tank and parts within it, simply rinse them in hot water and allow to dry completely. DO NOT use any chemicals to clean as this can be dangerous to your salamander if not properly rinsed.
As the water bowl will often be used as a toilet, the water needs to be emptied and replaced regularly so as to prevent excess ammonia in the terrarium, which can be dangerous to your salamander if he absorbs too much in his skin. Any waste should be cleaned up regularly.
Handling tiger salamanders
As a rule, tiger salamanders don’t like to be handled. If you must handle your salamander, make sure you wear latex gloves, or wash and rinse your hands well, and spray them with treated water. As salamander skin is so sensitive, oils or residues on our hands can negatively affect them. Make sure hands are wet when handling.
Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling a salamander, to prevent the spread of disease or salmonella.
Feeding tiger salamanders
Tiger salamanders are insectivorous and very voracious feeders. As they spend a lot of time beneath the soil, earthworms are a good food as they will be found by the salamanders whilst burrowing, and have a good nutrient content. Earthworms can be collected from your garden or elsewhere outside, but it is safer to only collect them from areas that you know to be free from pesticides and other chemicals. If you do collect earthworms, rinse them in treated/bottled water before giving them to your salamander. Night crawlers are another worm that can be fed to your salamander, and these can be purchased from fishing stores. Don’t feed your salamander red wrigglers as these taste foul to many salamanders.
Other main sources of food are crickets and locusts. These can often be bought in your local pet store. Many people prefer to tong-feed their salamanders. Your tiger may begin to recognise you as its feeder and subsequently ‘beg’ for food and come up for feeding time. To tong-feed, you simply grab a locust or cricket in some large tongs or tweezers and present it to your salamander, who will snap it up.
If using tongs/tweezers, make sure that you use ones with plastic or rubber ends. Sometimes the salamander may grab hold of the tweezers, and these materials are much gentler than if the ends were metal. You can buy these in many pet shops or online.
Some people release the live insects into the terrarium and allow the salamander to come up and eat the insect of its own free will. If you choose to do this, be sure to remove any dead or uneaten insects, especially crickets, after 24 hours as they can bite and damage the salamander. If doing this, make sure the mesh on the lid is small enough to prevent the crickets from escaping. Also be aware that if the crickets enter the water bowl they are very likely to drown. This may be prevented by providing something for them to crawl out on.
Feeding frequency and amounts will vary with each salamander, but it’s generally recommended that they be fed two or three times a week, with as much as they will eat in about 10 minutes (usually a couple of insects). In periods of much cooler temperatures (<18.3°C), your salamander can be fed as little as once a week.
Tiger salamanders will gorge themselves if food is plentiful, so be careful not to over-feed your salamander as they are prone to obesity!
If crickets and locusts are the main source of food, it is important to ‘dust’ them regularly with a calcium and vitamin/mineral supplement, as they are not very nutritious in this sense. To do this you simply sprinkle the powder on the insect about to be fed. This can be done by putting the insect in a small bag or pot and gently shaking it with the powder, so as to cover the insect thinly. When doing this, the insect should be tong-fed to the salamander, rather than released into the terrarium, as the powder will get rubbed off before the salamander eats the insect. Calcium supplements should be sprinkled onto food for every feed, and vitamin/mineral powder can be used once or twice a week.
Meal worms and wax worms can also be fed to your salamander, although this should be done in moderation, perhaps as an occasional treat, as they have a very high fat content.
As with most things, variety is best, so try and provide a varied diet for your salamander.
Tiger salamander behaviour
Tiger salamanders are nocturnal, so you are unlikely to see them out and about in the day time. As they are mole salamanders, they are also likely to spend the majority of their time hidden and burrowed underground. They are very secretive animals. Many people however, have noted that their captive tiger salamanders are a lot more active and sociable than they would be in the wild.
It is natural for your salamander to remain burrowed for periods of time, just make sure he eats at least once a week if this is the case. If your salamander likes to remain burrowed, earthworms may be a suitable source of food. If your salamander hasn’t surfaced to eat for a week, it is ok to dig him up to feed him. When you do this, be very gentle so as not to stress or harm your salamander. General handling rules should be applied.
Each salamander is different, so it is important to be aware of his behaviour so you can be alert if anything seems different or abnormal, which could be a sign of stress or illness.
If your salamander appears to be on the surface more in daytime or pulsates his throat rapidly, this could be a sign of heat stress. Make sure the terrarium is moist and cool.
Salamanders are best housed individually. They don’t get lonely. In the wild they normally only congregate with other salamanders to mate.
Particularly when growing, your salamander will shed its skin frequently. This is often noticeable when the yellow marks look duller or have odd black marks on them. The salamander may rub himself against objects to aid in the shedding of his skin. Usually, the salamander will eat the shed skin to reabsorb any nutrients.
If you do your own research and follow these guidelines you should have a happy smiley tiger salamander!
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