The Mandarin newt originates from the western part of Yunnan Province in southcentral China.
Over the past 25 years, westerners have experienced a slow but steady trickle of new and beautifully colored newt and salamander species from southeast Asia. Many have been from the crocodile newt group, and the Mandarin newt (Tylototriton shanjing, also known as the Yunnan newt) is perhaps the most striking. Many current hobbyists can trace their interest in salamanders and newts back to an image of the Mandarin newt in a book or magazine. This medium-sized salamander has a dark brown base color with ridges and bumps of distinct orange. (Note: I use the word “salamander,” because we use that term to refer to more terrestrial members of the tailed amphibians [Order Caudata].
The term “newt” is more appropriate for those that spend a lot of their time in water, but there is no rule for what is and isn’t a newt.)
The Mandarin newt originates from the western part of Yunnan Province in southcentral China. It is a relatively stout newt, reaching up to 5 inches in length. Close inspection of the skin reveals tiny bumps over the dark brown areas. The face tends to be bright orange, as are the extremities (feet, dorsal ridge, edges of the tail), and it has a distinct orange ridge around the top of the head, with similarly colored tubercles (bumps) marking the tops of the ribs along the body. While I have never observed the behavior myself, this family of newts is supposed to be capable of extruding the ends of their short ribs through these bumps as a defense mechanism. This is a tell-tale sign that these newts are related to the similarly-equipped ribbed newts (Pleurodeles) of southwestern Europe and North Africa.
The Mandarin newt spends virtually all of its time on land, except when it enters the water to breed for a short time each year. Individuals can become very tame for a terrestrial salamander—once they become habituated to their keeper, many individuals will beg for food at the glass in a similar fashion to tiger salamanders. They also make long-lived and tough captives, tolerating variety in their living conditions and relatively warm temperatures for a salamander.
Where To Get A Mandarin Newt
First, a note on taxonomy: The Mandarin newt was only designated a full species 20 years ago. Until that time it was considered to be Tylototriton verrucosus, but was separated out from T. verrucosus as a species in its own right. So be careful when looking at photos and books published more than a few years ago, and keep in mind that authors and hobbyists tend to use old names for longer than they should.
Research and the mix of animals in the pet trade has shown that the Mandarin newt and T. verrucosus may well be part of a “species complex”—several very similar species, perhaps not all of which have been described by science. I have personally observed at least four true-breeding members of this blur of species.
So how do you know you have a Mandarin newt? Ideally, you would know its geographical origin, but thankfully Mandarin newts tend to exhibit areas of very bright orange (the color of the fruit or close to it), so distinguishing them from the others shouldn’t be difficult if you have photos. Other members of the T. verrucosus group are darker, never approaching the orange color. At most they display a burnt orange, and many have virtually no orange coloration at all.
Another consideration is that there are other similar species that are not as closely related. Perhaps the one most likely to be confused with the Mandarin newt is the Kweichow knobby newt (T. kweichowensis). Its base color is black, and its raised areas are a burnt red color. It’s also a much bulkier newt, and most importantly, the reddish color does not extend onto the front of the head as it does in the Mandarin newt.
When sourcing a Mandarin newt, currently the best option is to find a breeder. They are rarely seen in the U.S. pet trade in recent years. A healthy Tylototriton has dry skin when out of the water (wet patches that don’t dry are indicative of bacterial infections), clear, not cloudy, eyes and no open sores. Given their rarity in recent years, expect to pay about $50 or more per newt.
What Is An Ideal Enclosure For My Mandarin Newt?
The Mandarin newt is not demanding when it comes to care and maintenance. A group of four adults could be accommodated very comfortably in a 20-gallon long aquarium. This newt is almost 100 percent terrestrial, so my preference is to maintain adults with only a water bowl for most the year. The newts aren’t social but they tolerate other newts of the same species very well, so they can be kept in groups.
The substrate can be as simple as coconut fiber with a layer of moss, but this should be changed at least every month. A more stable long-term arrangement is to use a drainage layer. Ideally, the aquarium will have an outlet (known as a bulkhead) placed in the bottom or low on one side, in order to let excess water drain from the aquarium. You will need to drill an appropriate hole in the glass for this, so either have an experienced person do it for you, or search videos online to see the correct technique. The drainage layer is effectively an air space below the real substrate. Excess water drains from the substrate into this drainage space, and will then drip out of the bulkhead drain. This prevents the substrate from becoming stale, and you can also run water through the substrate to help clear it of waste buildup.
My substrate preference for salamanders is a mixture of top soil (be sure it contains no chemical additives, such as fertilizers or perlite), coconut husk chips, some pine chips, and some dried sphagnum moss (preferably milled into small pieces). You want to make a mixture that doesn’t clump well, the idea being that it won’t retain too much water. I like to keep it at about 1 or 2 inches deep and change this layer out every three or four months. Spot clean any observable feces.
Crocodile newts in general do not truly burrow, so provide hiding opportunities such as pieces of cork bark, small sheets or clumps of moss, and/or small log tunnels (available at pet stores for use with reptiles and amphibians). Provide a water dish containing dechlorinated tap water, and change it regularly. Adult Mandarin newts will not drown, provided the sides of the water dish are sloped. I like to use the water dish from the base of a large plastic planter because it is relatively shallow and the edge is easy for a newt to climb over.
Adults Mandarins are poor climbers, but a screen lid is advisable to prevent escapes. These newts require good ventilation to prevent respiratory and skin problems. If you wish to grow plants in the terrarium, be aware that newts are relatively secretive captives and they may not emerge during the time that the lights are on. My current preference for terrarium lights are “daylight” color LED bulbs. You can buy expensive and elaborate aquarium hoods for hundreds of dollars, but a ceramic light fixture for reptiles can be fitted with a perfectly good LED bulb from the hardware store, provided it has the correct screw-in plug at the bottom. These are more expensive than normal light bulbs but they generate very little heat, use very little electricity, and they last virtually forever. One of my favorite gadgets for lighting is an electronic timer that automatically adjusts for sunup and sundown times depending on the time of year. These animals are not tropical, and if you intend to breed them reliably, the length of each day over the year needs to vary with the seasons.
The Mandarin newt is not a tropical species, so the temperature in the enclosure should vary with the seasons. Winter temperatures should stay above freezing, and summer temperatures in excess of 80 degrees Fahrenheit should be avoided. These newts are fairly tolerant of high temperatures but I wouldn’t test their limits by letting them remain in the low 80s for more than an occasional one or two days. Youngsters should be maintained in the mid-70s for optimal growth.
What To Feed A Mandarin Newt
Mandarin newts, like most newts, do very well on a diet of earthworms. The most accepted staple is nightcrawlers. You will have to cut these up for them to be of an appropriate size. If this isn’t for you, small crickets are a reasonable substitute, but be sure to gut-load them. Most newts and salamanders don’t need vitamin and mineral supplements provided they receive a little variety in their diet. I like to use one of the two staples I mentioned, together with an occasional treat of wax worms. I feed as much as the newts will eat in about 20 minutes (I find this to be a good rule for virtually all captive amphibians). During most of the year I feed my adults newts one or two times per week, and less in the winter because their metabolism is temperature dependent.
Youngsters should be fed food appropriate to their size three times a week. Use the width of a newt’s mouth to gauge the maximum food size then offer items that are at least a little smaller.
Breeding Mandarin Newts
Mandarin newts are not hard to breed as far as newts and salamanders go, but some effort on the keeper’s part will be required. If you maintain your newts in a terrarium that experiences seasonal changes in temperature and light duration, there are two options for breeding. First, if you have a sizeable water area (at least 12 inches by 12 inches) in the terrarium, you have the option to raise its temperature and keep the lid on the enclosure nearly air tight for a few days in the late spring/early summer. A sudden jump in water temperature to about 75 to 77 degrees with a matching jump to near 100-percent humidity will usually cause adult Mandarin newts to breed and lay eggs. The rise in temperature can be accomplished by placing an aquarium heater in the water area and setting it at the suggested temps. Be sure to seal most of the air gaps in and around the lid to retain the humidity.
If your newts’ terrarium does not include a sizeable water area, move the newts to an aquarium with a small island and utlizie the previously mentioned temperature and humidity levels. The newts may stay on the island for a day or two, but should eventually enter the water fairly soon after being placed in the hotter and more humid conditions. Don’t drop them in the water—this causes stress; let them enter the water on their own. If any refuse to enter the water after two days, remove them to their home terrarium and rethink your seasonal condition changes for the future. You can always give the newts another try after a break of a few weeks.
If you don’t vary the seasonal conditions, you can still try the last method described to get your newts to breed, but your chances of success are going to be much lower.
Mandarin Newt Egg and Larvae Care
Eggs are laid in the water, and the female can lay more than 100 eggs if she is large and well fed. The eggs are small, white, and laid singly on aquatic plants and debris. I provide plastic plants sold for aquariums—the newts don’t mind. Egg-laying usually occurs about 24 hours after mating; if you see no eggs after three days, then assume the breeding attempt was unsuccessful.
Maintain Mandarin newt eggs at about 72 degrees, and they should hatch after about 10 days. Take the parents out of the water as soon as possible after laying, because they will often eat the eggs, even the female who laid them. Eggs laid on plants can be easily transferred to another aquarium; don’t be afraid of damaging them because they are surprisingly tough once the jelly has formed.
Larvae hatch at about 0.4 of an inch (about 10 mm) in length. Maintain them at the same temperature as the eggs. Larvae will have white bellies for 24 to 72 hours after hatching as they absorb the remaining egg yolk in their digestive tract. When the white/cream color fades, the most challenging time has arrived. Until their front legs develop, the larvae will only respond well to tiny, live, moving food. The most appropriate options are to hatch your own brine shrimp egg capsules (ask a fish store clerk about this or try Googling it), or my favorite option: Daphnia. Daphnia can be cultured easily at home but this takes a lot of time, whereas brine shrimp can hatch in less than two days if you need food in a hurry. Be sure to do your preparations in advance of breeding so that you don’t lose larvae to starvation once they arrive.
Larvae should be fed at least once per day, preferably twice. Be careful not to put too many brine shrimp larvae in the aquarium at once because these saltwater animals will die quickly in fresh water and pollute the aquarium. This can kill your newt larvae.
After 10 to 14 days this difficult-to-feed phase should pass because with the development of front legs the larvae will become active predators and scavengers. At this time I switch to offering them frozen bloodworm cubes (available at pet and fish stores) which are chopped up while still frozen. I also still feed an occasional net full of Daphnia.
Cannibalism can be a problem once the larvae become active. This can be alleviated by regular feedings and keeping the numbers per tank low. I would keep fewer than 50 larvae in a 10-gallon aquarium at this point, so you may need multiple aquariums. Reduce the number of larvae per tank as they grow.
Water quality should be maintained as well as possible. This can mean daily water changes of up to 50 percent or more. Water should be of the same temperature and pre-treated with a dechlorinator. Be careful if you are considering using a filter. Filters can suck up larvae and their food. I generally don’t use them, or when I do I rely on a very large (surface area) sponge filter with a slow air flow.
The larvae will begin to develop back legs after a few weeks. As they grow in size you will find they can eat the bloodworms without your having to chop up the cubes first. At this point you need to watch the larvae very well because they can metamorphose at as little as 1.5 inches (4 cm) long, and they are vulnerable to drowning. If you’ve kept the water clean and the number of larvae per tank low, they should get much larger than this before they metamorphose, and size at metamorphosis has a direct impact on their ease of care later.
If you spot a larva with shrinking gills, be prepared to move it to an aquarium with shallower water and a ramp or other object to allow them to easily exit the water. Unlike the adults, metamorphs are prone to drowning. I like to use a small Critter Keeper or aquarium with about an inch of water in it and a sloping gravel substrate that emerges from the water. I put a piece of bark on the gravel “beach” so the young newts have somewhere to hide when they leave the water.
As soon as they leave the water I move the juvenile newts to a raising terrarium set up just like the adults’ enclosure. I don’t mix youngsters with adults because there is a possibility of cannibalism, but it is rare.
Juveniles can be raised on the same foods as adults, just go smaller. For particularly small juveniles, many people will feed them individually with frozen bloodworms or pieces of nightcrawler on the end of a toothpick.
Young Mandarin newts reach adult size in as little as 18 months but are rarely mature before the age of 2 years. Growth is dependent on both the temperature and the amount of food they receive.
The Mandarin newt is becoming rare in the American hobby, and with the discovery of a new species of the dreaded chytrid fungus in European and Asian newts, it’s likely to be banned for import to the U.S. soon, even if the animals are captive bred. If you are thinking about a newt or salamander, this is one of the most beautiful options and one of the hardiest captives. You should also consider its relatives, such as the Kweichow knobby newt—its care is nearly identical, and this fellow is a good option if you like a more semi-aquatic animal.
John Clare, PhD, is the author of Axolotl.org. He is the founder of Caudata.org, the longest running amphibian community on the Internet. He is also the founder of FrogForum.net.