Sensational Salamanders

Aquatic salamanders and newts inspire awe and wonder, and retailers would be wise to consider them a must-have in their aquatics section.


Every week or so, I take a journey down to the local fish wholesalers, where I purchase assorted feeders, dry goods and the occasional oddball fish—herp people are big on things like lungfish, electric eels, and the like. Before I leave, I always ask the guy who takes care of our amphibians to let me know what we might need. He typically replies, “Oh, the usual Woolworth’s assortment.”

When he and I were kids, before the era of big-box stores, and conversely, pet specialty stores, we would often make trips to our local five-and-dime, which carried hamsters, parakeets, hatchling turtles and freshwater fish. Kids would invariably be drawn to the tropical fish tanks, in hopes of spotting newts, aquatic frogs, and perhaps something as exotic and devastatingly weird as a baby spectacled caiman. 

Today, a half century later, the Woolworth’s assortment is our shorthand for the basic aquatic herps that a fish wholesaler might stock. These are often “gateway pets” to the herp hobby: something small and inoffensive enough to be deemed acceptable by a reluctant parent, but intriguing enough to fire a young person’s imagination.

So, let’s talk about the aquarium-appropriate animals that might be considered largely, if not completely, aquatic. We’ll start with the Woolworth’s assortment, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll stick to the tailed amphibia: the salamanders and newts. Of the readily available newts, my favorites are the seasonally available Eastern newts (Notophthalmus viridescens). These small three-to-five-in. charmers are olive green, with small black and red spots. They tend to remain almost fully aquatic once they have gone through their juvenile terrestrial red eft stage, but be advised that they should always have some form of basking island or bank, and, as such, they can also easily escape most any fish tan—and often do, to their own peril. Any newts sold to the inexperienced should be accompanied by stiff entreaties to fortify the tank’s top.

The Asian fire-bellied newts (Cynops spp.) are less seasonal, and similar in care, size and disposition. Chocolate brown to black, they are virtually omnipresent in tropical fish departments. Both these and the Eastern newts fare well with most community tropical fish, hence their popularity in the fish hobby. Not so, however for the paddletail newts (Pachytriton spp.), which get large enough to eat small fish and are more aggressive in their pursuit.

On the other hand, the paddletails are fully aquatic and run little or no risk of leaving the tank. While their coloring is similar to the fire-bellies, their skin texture is a dead give-away as to which genus you are dealing with; the paddletails have a remarkably slimy skin, whereas the fire-bellies are slimeless.

The Asian warty newts (Paramesotriton) are yet another similarly colored group. They get as large as the paddletails, but they are not quite as voracious. They are also easily distinguished by the texture of their skin—similar to the fire-bellies, but more granulated, as their name suggest—and the common appearance of three ridges that run the length of the newts’ backs. These too are quite capable of wandering off.

Captivating Creatures
There are some other fully aquatic salamanders that fall a little more far afield of the Woolworth’s contingent, and they can be some pretty spectacular aquarium denizens. Now illegal in California, the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is still widely available elsewhere and are a staple for scientific research. These are a Mexican form of tiger salamander (A. tigrinum) that are neotenic, meaning they reach adulthood without ever leaving juvenile form. Thus, these robust animals—typically six to 10 inches, though they have been reported up to 18 inches—remain forever aquatic, with long, feathery gills and a Zen-like placidity that makes owning a large aquarium of them a balm for the rigors of human life.

I think the only extended period of my life during which I gave up on television entirely was when I had set up a 60-gallon tank full of axolotls in my living room. Television could not compete with their enchanting dance through the elodia.

Note: Keep them well fed on feeder fish. If they get hungry, they will go after each other’s legs and gills, and, while they do regrow, who would want to put the little guys through that? Axolotls come in a variety of color morphs, and some of the “harlequin” forms are highly prized.

When I was boy, growing up on the edge of the Everglades in South Florida, neighbors would sometimes pull some real surprises out of the local canals from which we all fished. One day, I encountered a group of kids standing in a circle around a bucket, staring deeply into the muddy water swirling within. “What is it?” I asked. “We don’t know,” one of them said under his breath. Just then, the creature lazily circled to the surface, wriggled once, and dove back to the bottom. It frankly staggered my imagination; I had never seen anything like it.

A little research and a phone call to the Seaquarium garnered me an answer: it was a dwarf siren (Pseudobranchus axanthus). Maybe a foot long, dusky gray, with plumed external gills and two front and no rear feet, it was a creature out of my dreams. I keep them to this day.

They and their larger cousins, the greater sirens (Sirenidae, which can approach three feet in length), are aquatic clowns, draping themselves over branches like Snoopy pretending to be a buzzard, hoping to suck in a passing fish, rooting around in the gravel for worms, and scurrying about on their two feet. Both greater and lesser sirens are capable of aestivating—a drought or heat related version of hibernation—though such extremes should be avoided in captive situations.

However, this does speak to their durability. I once had a tank disaster, when a pump gave up the ghost while I was away on a three-day trip. Every fish in the 40-gallon tank expired. My pair of sirens, Serge and Jane? I found them cruising around in the sludge as if nothing had changed. A clean tank, new pump and fresh water, and they were ready to go.

If bipedal herps are not your thing, the mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) is a similar salamander of the more typical four-legged style. They have a lovely mottled pattern that sometimes reminds me of Army-style camouflage, and they are distinguished as being the only salamander capable of vocalizing, sounding roughly like a small dog’s bark.

It might be hard to imagine, but there is one aquatic salamander about which I must give some words of caution: the Amphiuma (this is both the common and genus name). This is a very large salamander that resembles the sirens and mudpuppies in many respects, but the legs are so vestigial as to be almost unnoticeable. They are like sleek gray submarines—if submarines could twist, turn, do underwater flips and bite. Amphiumas do not have teeth, but they do posses razor-like jaws that can do real damage. I once witnessed a large Amphiuma ill-conceivedly housed with baby Caimans. In an almost nonchalant fashion, the Amphiuma bit a Caiman—in half.

Terrestrial salamanders are fossorial, hiding under things and almost never showing a hint of natural behavior unless disturbed. As beautiful as they often are, it still takes a certain level of dedication to keep such a visually unrewarding pet. Aquatics are quite the opposite: even in their lethargy they remain visible and fascinating. You would be ill-advised not to stock as wide a selection of these darlings of the deep as you can.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 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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