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Choosing a Tiger Salamander

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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The tiger salamander is the world's largest land-dwelling salamander. Growing to an impressive 13 inches, this attractive salamander is easy to care for – even for children if they are supervised. It has a wide face, seems always to be smiling and, when fattened on earthworms, can take on the appearance of a sumo wrestler.

Tiger salamanders, Ambystoma tigrinum, are found in soft ground that permits easy burrowing. They spend much of their time hidden away, but will emerge to forage when hungry. They will also walk toward you in their tank once they recognize you as the source of their food, but that is the limit of their affection.

Tiger salamanders can sometimes be collected from ponds within their range, but do not collect them from protected areas like state and national parks. Get permission before going onto private property. The salamanders are also often available from your local pet store.

Origin and Life Span

Tiger salamanders are found in a broad swath from east to west in America, with the distribution interrupted by the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Appalachian Mountains in the east. Tiger salamanders are found along both coasts. The north-south distribution is from central Alberta southward to just past the U.S.-Mexico border.

Because tiger salamanders are so widespread, and so varied in coloration, taxonomists have split them into about eight subspecies but the criteria for splitting and the exact number of these subspecies is a very touchy subject for some taxonomists.

If well fed and maintained in a clean tank at cool temperatures, your salamander will live ten to 20 years in captivity.

Appearance

Tiger salamanders are good sized, plump-bodied salamanders. The most familiar color combination is a series of bright yellow streaks or dabs on a fat, black, shiny body. Some may have the colors so melded that they seem to be olive in color, with darker bars/spots.

Their basic body form is affected by where they hatch and what they eat, an odd twist on traditional genetics. In some populations, tiger salamanders occur in three larval and adult morphs. One morph remains a larva all its life. These are found in permanent ponds, and the tigers remain as gilled larva all their life, simply increasing in size with sexual maturity. A second morph develops from eggs laid in ephemeral ponds. That morph transforms into a small adult with sexual maturity.

The third morph is reminiscent of the picture of Dorian Gray, the classic story of a dissolute man whose portrait alters to reflect the cascading wickedness in the man's soul. This is the cannibal morph. Like the smaller morph that transforms into a small adult and leaves the pond, only to return at breeding season, the cannibal morph seems like a happy-go-lucky, Joe-average tiger salamander.

But the cannibal morph larva eats other tiger salamander larva, and its body shape changes on this diet. It has a disproportionately wider head, a wider mouth and elongate teeth. The adaptive advantage to cannibalism is that more food is available, which results in faster growth and faster transformation to the adult form. The adult cannibal morphs retain the wider head and bigger mouth of the larva.

Behavior

Adult tiger salamanders are most often seen after heavy rains, when they emerge from their burrows and go looking for a mate. Like other good-sized, armor-less, plump animals, there are a vast number of potential predators from wading birds to raptors to raccoons and opossums. Aside from trying to disappear into a burrow when threatened, the tiger has a few tricks up its sleeve.

One is defensive posturing, with the body and tail strongly arched and the back feet spread and arched. The tail is raised and waved. Threatened tigers secrete a milky substance from the pores on the back, and may use the tail-waving motion to fling the secretions toward the predator. This may or may not work, depending on the predator. Raccoons are smart enough to roll the salamander around in the dirt or forest duff until the toxin supply is both exhausted and rubbed off. At that point, the tiger becomes part of the food chain.

Tiger salamanders are extraordinary in their orientation ability. They not only can orient themselves by celestial cues, but also have a sense of time of day so they know when to seek those celestial cues. Eyesight is not needed for this orientation process; the pineal body plays a vital role.
The pineal body, known popularly as a third eye, sits between and behind a salamander's eyes. It may be visible as a gray spot or hidden beneath a layer of skin. It detects light and salamanders use it to chart their position by the stars and moon, allowing them to find their way back to their breeding ponds.

Housing

Tigers don't take much in the way of housing. You can keep one or two in a ten-gallon or larger tank, providing you have substrate (dampened sphagnum moss, potting soil or non aromatic mulch) deep enough for burrowing. Keep the substrate moist, and wash/rinse it in plain water at least weekly.

Tiger 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

Tigers consume earthworms, crickets, assorted insects and other amphibians. Their general attitude seems to be "If it moves, it might be food, so give it a taste." In captivity, they also consume pinky mice, but these high fat items should be considered a snack, and limited to two or three a month.

Tiger salamanders in captivity do quite well on a diet of earthworms and crickets. Just put a few worms or half a dozen crickets per salamander in the cage. The salamander will either crawl onto the rock-feeding platform, or will encounter the food burrowing through the substrate. Feed two or three times a week, depending on how quickly the last meal disappeared. As unappetizing as it may seem, tiger salamanders can grow distinctly chubby on a diet of earthworms.

If you're feeding crickets, be sure to dust them with a vitamin/mineral supplement that contains calcium and vitamin D3. Calcium supplementation is particularly important in preventing metabolic bone disease, or MBD, a serious bone degeneration that happens when a reptile gets too little of the mineral. Place the feeder insects in a small jar with a pinch or two of the supplement; cover the jar and shake it to coat the insects with the powder. These coated insects are known as "shake and bake" feeders.

Handling

Handle your salamander as little and as infrequently as possible. If have to pick yours up, hold it in the palm of your hand with your fingers curled around its mid-section to restrain it safely. It may wiggle slightly, but will not put up much of a fight.

Wash your hands and rinse your hands thoroughly before touching your salamander. It is important that you are cleansed completely of all traces of soap, lotion, insect repellents, perfume or makeup – although some may linger despite your best efforts.

Like all amphibians, 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 thirty degrees higher than the temperature of the salamander's skin, a very uncomfortable difference from your salamander's point of view.

Common Diseases and Disorders

Tiger salamanders have few medical problems, if their housing and feeding needs are met.

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