Tips on caring for and keeping the tiger salamander
Salamanders usually aren’t at the top of the list for most reptile and amphibian enthusiasts. They are seen as delicate, secretive and more challenging to feed than frogs, and not very good pets in general. And in the case of many salamander species, particularly some of the smaller ones, these are valid concerns. The tiger salamander, however, is none of the above, and it makes an excellent, hardy captive. It is probably the most interactive species of amphibian.
The tiger salamander was, at one time, considered a single species. Over the past couple of decades, scientists recognized that it is several closely related species. These include the California tiger (Ambystoma californiense), the eastern tiger (A. tigrinum) and the Mexican tiger (A. velasci). There is also the barred tiger species complex, made up of several subspecies, including the blotched tiger (A. mavortium melanostictum) and the most striking of all tigers, the barred tiger salamander itself (A. mavortium mavortium).
Tigers come in all manner of colors, from bright creamy yellow stripes on a dark brown or black background, to pure blue-gray, and even black with orange spots. Even within races, the variety of colors and markings can be surprising from individual to individual. Some races are made up of populations of aquatic adults that look very similar to their close relative the axolotl (A. mexicanum).
At 11 inches or larger, tigers share the record for the largest land-living salamander in the world with the giant salamanders (Dicamptodon spp.). I’ve personally seen a 14-inch male, and there are records of even larger aquatic adults. Tiger salamanders are found from the shores of the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of the continental United States, as well as southern Canada and far south into Mexico.
In fact, tigers are arguably more widespread than the American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), but while almost everyone has seen a bullfrog, the tiger salamander makes no noise and spends a lot of time underground, so many never know they are there. Tigers are part of the group known as mole salamanders. They are heavily built, with strong legs and feet for digging, and relatively small eyes — all good adaptations if you spend much of your life digging in the dirt.
Tiger salamanders adapt well to captivity with the proper amphibian supplies. Contrast this to the similar-looking spotted salamander, (A. maculatum), which is extremely secretive and rarely accepts food directly from its keeper. Rarely, an individual tiger remains stubbornly jumpy or standoffish; most lose their fear of humans in time and become exceedingly tame, jumping at fingers for food and following their keepers from within the terrarium. The permanent smile-like expression on their faces is hard to resist.
Sexually mature males tend to be slim of build, have flatter tails, and a very noticeably swollen cloaca (the vent area, located on the bottom of the body just behind the rear legs). A mature female is well rounded and her cloaca is very small when compared to that of the male. Tigers can reach maturity in less than a year. I know of several that were in captivity for 12 years, making them at least 13 years old. For most, 10 years is a good life span.
Getting a Tiger Salamander
Some tiger salamanders are protected by law, the main examples being the California tiger and the Sonoran tiger (A. mavortium stebbinsi). The eastern tiger is protected in some states, such as New Jersey. California and New Jersey restrict the possession of any of the mole salamanders, so if you live in either state you should consider another salamander species as a pet. In addition, several states either prohibit the possession or at least the sale of their state-native tigers. So, for example, if you live in Ohio you shouldn’t attempt to acquire or keep the eastern tiger, but consider a barred or a blotched tiger instead.
Despite their tame nature, tiger salamanders are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. All reports of breeding have been carried out with aquatic (gilled) adults, hormone injections, or by keeping the salamanders in outdoor conditions for much of the year. Consequently, all tiger salamanders kept in captivity are of wild origin. This presents a limited set of acquisition options for the budding tiger salamander enthusiast. If you have a state fishing license and it is legal to collect and possess tigers in your state, one option is to look for eggs or larvae (tadpoles) in ponds in the springtime. In many states you can acquire tiger salamander larvae through the bait fishing trade. They are frequently called “water dogs,” though not all of the water dogs sold are actually tiger salamanders, so this is not the most reliable source.
Many reptile and amphibian vendors have tigers available in late summer and early fall, and these are usually newly metamorphosed juveniles. The advantage of acquiring a metamorph is that you can generally tell what race/subspecies of tiger you’re acquiring. Buying larvae from the bait store is something of a potluck, but most bait tigers are blotched or barred tigers.
Tiger Salamander Care and Housing
Tigers are perhaps the easiest salamanders to house and care for in captivity. However, the requirements of larvae and terrestrial tigers are very different.
If you’ve acquired a water dog, you will need to keep it aquatically in the same manner as the axolotl (those interested should read my article, “What Is It?” in the January 2011 edition of REPTILES magazine). Briefly, they require a fully aquatic setup with clean, still water. If a filter is used, make sure to minimize the strength of outflow because these animals do not tolerate strongly flowing water. When a larva begins to lose its tail fin, reduce the water level to barely cover the salamander, and either provide an easily accessible island or raise the aquarium at one end so the larva can easily leave the water when it is ready. Like most amphibians, tigers can drown easily at this precocious stage. Larval tigers should not be kept with fish, and ideally they should be kept in low numbers, for example no more than three large larvae in a 10-gallon aquarium. This will minimize leg and gill nipping, as well as keeping feces and waste food at a manageable level.
Herping for Wild Tiger Salamanders
Tiger salamanders of one race or another are found across the continental United States. They inhabit diverse habitats, such as the forests of the pine barrens on New Jersey’s Atlantic Coast to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Despite their wide distribution, they are rarely encountered by field herpetologists. In contrast, the “water dog” larva of the tiger salamander is well-known to small boys and bass fishermen alike.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking for tigers in the panhandle of Texas. The Llano Estacado, basically an incredibly wide and long table mountain or “mesa”, is the southern extension of the Great Plains, reaching south past Lubbock, Texas and west over the border into New Mexico. To describe it as barren may be an understatement. There’s virtually no running water, and the temperature in the summer soars into the 100s, only to plummet below freezing in the snow-punctuated winter. In places, you can go for miles without seeing a single tree, and the arid land is so flat that you could be forgiven for thinking you can see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon. It’s certainly not the first place you would look for any amphibian, yet shockingly, in this arid cowboy country, the barred tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium mavortium) is the most abundant backboned animal by weight!
Don’t spend hot summer nights hunting for them — they only come out in the rain. Perhaps more than any other mole salamander, they spend their days and nights underground, often making use of the tunnels of the prairie dog cities that are the only significant features on the landscape. But when the first heavy rains of March and April come, the horde emerges to travel to their breeding pools. All of the people of the area know what a tiger salamander is because these large amphibians die by the thousands on roads, or they end up in houses through the gaps at the bottom of doorways, on their way to their ponds. I once saw several in mid-migration outside a Dairy Queen near downtown Lubbock on a stormy spring night.
On a Sunday morning in early May of 2007, I encountered my first adult tiger in the area. It had been a particularly wet year and the normally fast-drying ponds and roadside ditches were hanging onto their water for an unusually long time of eight weeks or more. I had just spent a few minutes clearing the tumbleweeds from a narrow water-filled ditch when a strange movement on the sandy bottom caught my eye. It was as if a part of the sand was slowly moving by. Of course, it was actually a large female tiger salamander! The normally striking yellow-cream bars on a dark-brown background were the perfect cryptic camouflage. Later during the same day, I caught several young larvae from a large playa lake near where I encountered the adult.
As a field herper, what can you do to maximize your chances of finding this elusive monster? Firstly, you need to be in their range. Most states publish records of amphibians on a county-by-county basis, so that’s a start. Secondly, be sure you have the appropriate license or permit to interact with these animals. In many states a fishing license is required. A few states, including New Jersey and California, protect their native tigers and it is illegal for anyone to interfere with them, so check your local laws. In the Plains states, the first large thunderstorm of the spring after the very cold weather has passed will bring the tigers out on the roads. A flashlight, a car (drive slowly!), good rain gear and some boots are all that you need. Tiger larvae can be caught in nets throughout the spring, summer and fall. Eastern tiger salamanders are best found in late winter or very early spring, as they journey to their breeding ponds. Unlike their more westerly cousins, they don’t have an explosive migration, and adults are particularly challenging to find. Eggs are often found attached to aquatic debris in small bunches of 50 to 200, and larvae can be fished up with nets throughout the year.
Housing terrestrial/metamorphosed tiger salamanders is very straightforward. If you wish to make a display terrarium, consider using a larger aquarium, at least 20 gallons in volume for two individuals. A 20 “long” aquarium is better than a 20 “high” because the salamanders will not use the vertical space provided by most display aquariums. For non-display purposes, I like to use large plastic storage boxes. My favorite minimum size for a tiger is a 58-quart, transparent plastic storage box available at most large supermarkets. Whether you use an aquarium or a storage box, a tight-fitting lid is important to prevent the salamanders from escaping. Large adults find it very difficult to escape aquariums and boxes, and indeed, once tame they rarely try to do so, but having a lid or aquarium hood in place is a wise decision.
Being mole salamanders, tigers like to burrow. When first acquired, they tend to spend most of their time buried in the substrate until feeding time. When choosing a salamander substrate, I use a commercial topsoil mix purchased from a hardware store. Be sure to purchase one free of fertilizers and artificial ingredients. Like all amphibians, salamanders have permeable skin and can absorb toxins readily from their surroundings. If you have access to a garden free of insecticides and herbicides, another option is to gather your own soil. If neither of these options is available to you, a third option is to use coconut fiber, sometimes sold as “coir,” as a soil substitute such as the Zoo Med Eco Earth Compressed Coconut Fiber Expandable Reptile Substrate. However, real topsoil and commercial topsoil mixes offer a more chemically and biologically stable environment than coconut fiber, and require much less frequent changing.
These large amphibians lunge for their food and frequently ingest particles of substrate. Small fragments of bark and fern fiber could potentially lead to gut impactions and the death of your salamander. If the substrate you choose contains large particles, consider passing it through some fine wire mesh prior to use in the terrarium.
Four inches of substrate should be considered a minimum depth. Deeper is better, from the tiger’s point of view. Wild tigers have been uncovered as far as 5 feet into the ground! The substrate should be spot cleaned of waste food and feces where possible, and should be changed completely every three to four months, or more regularly if you use coconut fiber.
Planted terrariums require much less frequent substrate maintenance, but tigers tend to uproot and damage most of the usual terrarium plants in the course of their daily digging. If you do use plants, consider using larger, tougher plants, such as pothos/devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum), temperate philodendrons, or consider artificial silk plants.
If you wish to keep the tigers on the surface more often, I find the hides made from hollow half-branches of wood to be excellent, like the Zoo Med Habba Hut. I’ve also found a sheet of flat wood or even rigid dark plastic to be very popular. Simply lay it flat on the substrate and the tigers will dig a depression directly underneath. Lift the sheet and you’ll usually be greeted by a hungry smile. Tigers will even excavate semi-permanent tunnels and sit just inside with their heads poking out, waiting for food. Sphagnum moss, either living or re-hydrated, is a good addition to cover the substrate’s surface. It aids in retaining moisture and looks rather nice. Live temperate mosses such as the Flukers Live Moss can do well in tiger terrariums if strategically placed away from the main digging areas.
Tigers do well in a wide range of humidity. As a general guideline, the substrate should be moist, but if you squeeze some in your hands it shouldn’t drip. I like to provide a moisture gradient by wetting one end of the terrarium and leaving the other end relatively dry. You can also add a large water bowl if desired; just be sure it can be easily entered and exited, like the Exo Terra X-Large Reptile Water Dish. Tigers make a habit of defecating in water bowls, which can aid in keeping the terrarium clean. Dechlorinated tap water is suitable for water bowls and for keeping the substrate moist. Misting is unnecessary, but distilled water or reverse osmosis water are preferable for this purpose because they won’t leave residue on the terrarium glass.
Tiger salamanders tolerate a wide range of temperatures. They will be active and eager to eat when kept at 50 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Races that originate from regions of the country of more extreme temperature variations, such as the barred tiger group, will tolerate daily temperatures well into the 80s. The more heat-sensitive races, such as eastern tigers from the northeastern part of the U.S., will suffer heat stress if subjected to temperatures above 80 degrees for long, and supplemental heating should be unnecessary for any race of tiger.
Terrarium lighting is not required by salamanders. Despite being a nominally nocturnal animal, I have observed adults active in the wild during the day. In captivity, they respect no distinct night/day rule. New captives will often be wary if subjected to bright light for long periods of time, but they tend to overcome this rather quickly. Lighting the terrarium is purely for the benefit of any live plants in the enclosure and your viewing pleasure. If you are keeping plants, make sure to use a plant-friendly bulb in the range of 4,000 to 10,000 Kelvin (often sold as being in the “daylight” or “freshwater” spectrum). Bulbs that emit large amounts of heat are best avoided, so consider a fluorescent fixture, such as those sold for aquariums, or even an LED lighting solution. The latter is a great option if you do not need to cater to light-hungry plants.
Tiger Salamander Food
New tigers will often spend much of their time buried in the substrate, so you may find yourself having to dig your salamander out in order to feed it. As they become more tame, they spend more time on the surface and you won’t have to dig as often. One feeding trick is to gently tap the terrarium wall a few times before digging for the salamander or feeding those on the surface. Most tigers will learn that the tapping is associated with feeding time, and buried salamanders will usually emerge after a moment.
Like virtually all salamanders, tigers require no additional supplementation to their diet, so vitamin and mineral dusting is redundant. A good staple food with an occasional treat is perfectly adequate.
Their main diet in the wild is beetles, earthworms and crickets. In captivity, nightcrawlers are an excellent staple food, as are crickets sold as live reptile food. Both foods are relatively low in fat and earthworms have a good ratio of nutrients. Crickets should be gut loaded with vegetables and/or a commercial cricket diet in order to improve their nutrient content. Another good staple are captive-cultured cockroaches, such as Blaptica dubya.
Tiger salamanders often become obese, so it is important to limit foods such as waxworms to occasional treats. Waxworms are easily the favorite food of tiger salamanders, and even the most reluctant tiger will find it hard to refuse them. It often helps to gently hold the waxworm with a forceps and rub it near the nose and on the mouth of the tiger. This is an especially useful trick for newly captive tigers that are overly shy or skinny.
Tigers will consume pinky and fuzzy mice with gusto, but these foods have proven to be especially fattening and should only be fed as a very rare treat. Perhaps more than any other amphibian, tigers probably encounter rodent nests in the wild. Other treat foods include mealworms, Phoenix worms, hornworms, silkworms, and even pieces of thawed frozen shrimp.
Larval (gilled) tigers will take similar foods to adults, but will also take thawed/frozen bloodworms, which are available at most pet and aquarium stores.
Tigers have insatiable appetites. Feed as much as will be consumed by each tiger in 15 minutes. For adults, this usually means two nightcrawlers. Adults should be fed two to three times per week during the warmer parts of the year. You can reduce this to once every one or two weeks during winter months if temperatures in the terrarium fall into the 50s. Juvenile tigers should be fed more regularly, as often as every other day, because they are less likely to become obese as they devote the nutrients to growth.
Are You Looking to Make the Transition From Reptiles to Amphibians?
Are you looking to make the transition from reptiles to amphibians? Do you like interactive pets that are good eaters and hardy? Look no further: Tiger salamanders are top of the list. Large, bold and often strikingly colored, no other amphibian adapts better to their human keepers, and this makes tiger salamanders rewarding and interactive terrarium inhabitants. They are certainly one of the best-kept secrets of the amphibian world. And who can resist that permanent smile?
JOHN CLARE, Ph.D., 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.
Check local laws if you intend to obtain a tiger salamander. Some states limit the ownership of any mole salamander.