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Choosing a Fire Salamander

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Fire salamanders are perhaps one of the prettiest of all salamanders. Their shining black bodies, splotched with bright yellow, look like masterpieces of jeweler's enamelwork. It is an eye-catching salamander, even within a group known for its appealing color combinations.

These brilliant colors are a warning to other animals that the fire salamander is not palatable; these salamanders have salivary and skin glands that can secrete a viscous toxin which can at the very least cause a strong gagging reaction in a potential predator.

In the wild, these are secretive creatures, emerging from their hidden lairs and decaying logs under the safety of dark wet nights, to forage in the woodlands for slugs, earthworms, crickets and other very small invertebrates.

Adults range in size from 8 to 12 inches in total length, and they adapt well to terrarium life. Like tiger salamanders, they seem to anticipate their owner's approach (or recognize the footsteps), and once acclimated, will emerge even during daylight hours to accept a plump earthworm or waxworm.

Because they are fairly large terrestrial salamanders that wander about their cage nightly, you should provide as large an enclosure as possible with multiple hiding areas. Remember to change the substrate at regular intervals, and to keep their bathing water fresh. Keep cage temperature at 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid seriously stressing or killing your fire salamander.

Origin and Life Span

The fire salamander, Salamandra salamandra, is a stout-bodied salamander found in Europe, southeast Asia, and in a limited area in northwest Africa. It is one of the more common salamanders in Europe and is found under cover in mossy, forested areas. A healthy specimen will live for up to 50 years in captivity.

Appearance

Fire salamanders are boldly clad in black with bright yellow spots, or in black with bright yellow stripes; another color combination features a brown body with vague orange spots and an orange head.

Fire salamanders are heavy-bodied salamanders that can grow up to 10 inches long. They have shiny, cool, damp skin appositionally colored in black and bright yellow. They have a thick head, the neck is almost as wide as the head, and the costal grooves are clearly visible along the animal's sides.

They look well adapted to a secretive and reclusive subterranean life, pushing through clumps of moss in search of yet another food item, which is pretty much exactly what they do.

Behavior

Fire salamanders are nocturnal, remaining under logs or under moss and emerging on damp nights to forage. Unlike other salamanders, these salamanders are gregarious even outside of the breeding season, clustering in small groups in favored areas of seclusion. In their native habitat, fire salamanders tend to stay within a proscribed area. Males have a home range of just under ten square meters, or an area just about 30 feet square. Females need a bit more room, to almost 13 square meters, or about 40 feet on a side.

The bright colors of the fire salamanders are also warning colors. To back up this color-warning, the fire salamanders have skin secretions that are toxic or distasteful to predators. Like other heavy-bodied salamanders, the fire salamander will practice head butting when confronted by a potential predator. The salamander lowers its head towards a predator, which ensures that the salivary glands, with their copious sticky toxin, will be the first encountered. When handled roughly, the fire salamander smells like vanilla. The alkaloid secreted causes a burning sensation in the mouth of the captor, and can cause muscle convulsions and death in small mammals.

Housing

Maintaining cool enough temperatures is one of the major obstacles in the way of someone who wishes to keep fire salamanders. Having evolved in cooler areas, most fire salamanders are stressed whenever temperatures exceed 70 degrees, and much prefer 55 to 65 degrees. An unheated basement or garage area is far better for them than your heated house.

Fire salamanders exhibit distress by remaining awake during daylight hours, leaving their subterranean retreat, and trying to climb the walls of their enclosure. You'd do the same if you were kept in an enclosure with an ambient temperature of 90 degrees.

Other than the temperature requirements, fire salamanders don't require much in the way of housing. You can keep one or two in a 10-gallon tank, providing you have substrate (dampened sphagnum moss, potting soil, or non-aromatic mulch) deep enough for burrowing. A larger tank, if you have the room, would provide your salamander(s) with more room to ramble around at night. Add a water container large enough for them to immerse their bodies and move around a little. Salamanders don't sun, so ambient lighting will be sufficient.

Provide a flat rock to use as a base for feeding, so the salamanders will know where to look for food. Put in a few pieces of bark or cork bark for hiding areas. You can even add a few plants, if you want the tank to look attractive; just nestle the plants, still in their pots, into the substrate.

Feeding

Although reclusive in nature, fire salamanders adapt well to captivity, even learning to associate the vibrations of their owner's footsteps with the arrival of food. Often they will emerge and wait at the front of their cage when they hear their owner approach. They will learn to eat food offered in forceps or in your fingers. They dine on live foods, including earthworms, crickets, trevo worms, wax worms, slugs, and other small invertebrates.

Feed every day or every other day. Dust or dip the food item in a multivitamin/mineral supplement once a week, just to ensure that your salamander gets all the nourishment it needs.

Handling

Handle your salamander as little and as infrequently as possible. Even after you've washed your hands before reaching into the cage, your skin may bear traces of soap, lotion, insect repellents, perfume or makeup. Salamanders have skin like damp blotting paper-they pick up and absorb any substance they come in contact with. Anything you might have on your skin is bad news to a salamander. Keep in mind that the temperature of your hot, dry hands is probably 30 to 40 degrees higher than the temperature of the salamander's skin, a very uncomfortable difference from the salamander's point of view.

Common Diseases and Disorders

The easiest way to deal with medical problems of the fire salamander is to avoid them. Begin with a healthy salamander. Don't accept a salamander with any kind of skin lesion, fungus or wound. You can only see what's on the surface, and what's underneath may not be curable. Provide a vitamin/mineral supplement on the food once a week, and remember to keep the cage temperatures to 70 degrees or lower.

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