Good Newts

The re-legalization of salamander and newt sales within the U.S. could open up new opportunities for herptile retailers.




Those of you who are in the herptile trade (as opposed to those who are full-liners) will know that, in addition to the now long-standing ban on pythons and boas, most species of salamanders and newts came under similar restrictions in 2016. The good news for us in the trade is that in April of this year, the ban was partially overturned in the courts. While importation into the U.S. is still prohibited, distribution from state to state within the continental United States is once again legal. So, how exactly will this affect us?

The ban on newts and salamanders was set up as a prophylactic measure to halt the spread of the lethal chytrid fungus. This is an enormous threat facing many wild populations of a variety of tailed amphibians and has not yet been solved. To that end, the ban is probably a good thing to have in place, and I would argue that saving wild populations of such ecologically important creatures deserves whatever sacrifices businesses might need to make. However, it is also true that the state-to-state ban was indeed an unnecessary overreach.

I would guess that if one animal was the entry point into the keeping of reptiles and amphibians for almost every professional herpetologist, biologist, zookeeper and breeder/seller of exotics, it was the humble little fire-bellied newt (Cynops spp.). They were the non-fish vertebrate in every home tropical fish tank from the time I was a boy up until just a few years ago. I have a few customers with individuals well over 20 years old; they were pervasive not only for their durability but also their low cost, gentle charm and good looks. I know of few people within the U.S. who are breeding them, so indeed it seems their day as a staple tank denizen is done. All hail the fire-belly!

The other common community tank newt has always been the Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), a lovely little olive-green newt with orange dots native to the Southeast. I would expect to see them back on the market this spring, but I would also imagine that their price will jump formidably. After all, they will be filling an enormous void in the marketplace that their Asian cousins once filled. I am equally certain that, no matter what the price, there will be an eager audience happy to pay for them.

The Eastern newt has an interesting life cycle. They hatch out, as most salamanders and newts do, in a nearly adult form, except they have external gills for their first year or two, wedding them to an aquatic lifestyle. In their second or third year, the gills will recede, and they will turn from green to orange, like a tree in the fall. In this terrestrial phase they are called efts. They will then spend a year on land, foraging for small insects in mossy outcroppings and on forest floors. They will then revert back to an aquatic life (though they will never regrow the gills). I mention this because many’s the time I have seen dealers offer efts for as much as 10 times the price of the newts. This seems to me to be potentially misleading almost to the point of fraud. Do not fall for it.

Here in California, tiger salamanders and axolotls (both genus Ambystoma) are illegal, as we have a local tiger subspecies that is both endangered and subject to interbreeding with other subspecies, thus mucking up its unique gene pool. However, as axolotls are very commonly bred for research, I expect that they will be fairly easy to acquire for most in the pet trade. They are fully aquatic, but not much for community tanks. Fish tend to nip at their gills, and they tend to nip at fish. As they get to nearly a foot long, they can clear out a tank of other inhabitants in record speed. I must tell you that, back in the day when they were still legal here, I had a 50 gallon tank with them in my living room, and they were so relaxing and meditative to observe I nearly gave up watching TV. I really recommend them.

The United States is home to many terrestrial salamanders, most notably tigers, spotted and marbled (again, all of the Ambystoma genus) and these should all once more enter the marketplace. I am a big fan of all of them, but, beautiful as they may be, they are all fossorial (they prefer to remain hidden) and do not handle well, and thus none of them have ever taken any particular hold as popular pets.

I do hope that someday the international ban might be lifted, both because I fear for the wellbeing of wild salamanders around the planet and because my favorites are two European animals: the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), a terrestrial animal of vivid black and yellow coloration and an outgoing temperament, and the crested newt (Triturus cristatus), an aquatic newt in which the males develop a spectacular Godzilla-like crest when in breeding mode. Come back, fellas!


No Newts, No Problem
So, what else might fill the void left by the fire-bellied newt? I would suggest two frogs that are already a staple of the aquarium trade. Both of them go under a vast array of common names, so you might see them offered as almost anything. This is why I always like to include scientific names when discussing these animals, even to the extent that I label animals with both common and scientific names in the store. Classes up the joint!

The first, often called the popcorn floating frog (Occydozyga lima), gets about as big around as a silver dollar and spends its days floating about the tank with its eyes above water. Native to Indonesia, they are subtly pretty and quite amusing little things. They are fully aquatic, but they should have a little land area available as their feeding response is triggered by small live insects, and they will dash ashore to grab crickets. (A small basking area is also advisable for Eastern newts.)
The second is the dwarf underwater frog (Hymenochirus spp.), native to equatorial Africa. The biggest ones I have ever seen were about the size of a quarter. They are tank-bottom foragers and really love live tubifex worms. There are currently albino variations widely available on the market as well as the typical ones, which tend to be slate grey. Between their minuscule size, stoic disposition, dull coloring and short lifespan (less than three years), I frankly don’t find a lot to recommend them. On the other hand, they are very inexpensive.

It seems that, inevitably, we have fewer and fewer options available to us in the live animal business. I might be a little more bitter about that if it wasn’t that, inevitably, with the way things are going in nature, the world has fewer and fewer precious creatures that we might bring into our lives. We must as an industry work harder to develop techniques for captive breeding and reducing pressure on wild populations. That is, in the end, the only answer to longevity in our field. PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.


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