Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) Care Sheet
Spotted salamanders are absolutely stunning creatures and are commonly called the yellow-spotted salamander, as a result of the yellow spots that make them so attractive. This species belongs to the genus Ambystoma, which are the mole salamanders. Mole salamanders are identified by their wide, protruding eyes and prominent costal grooves, thick arms, and rounded tails. Most mole salamanders have spectacular coloration with vivid patterning over a dark background color. The markings can range from deep blue spots to large yellow bars, depending on the species.
Spotted salamanders can be found in the eastern United States and Canada. Their range extends from Nova Scotia and the Gaspé Peninsula west all the way to the northern shore of Lake Superior, southern Georgia and eastern Texas. They can be found hiding beneath logs, leaf litter or in burrows within deciduous bottom land forests in the vicinity of water. They can also be found in coniferous forests where the climate is sufficiently damp and there is water suitable for breeding.
Temperament - Handling
This species does not want you handling it, even though it is extremely docile and wont bite. Spotted salamanders spend the majority of their time hiding. Handling should only be done when necessary to prevent stressing the salamander or injuring its delicate skin. If you are required to handle the salamander, you should first wash your hands with cold water. This will lower the temperature of your hand, which can and will increase the temperature of the salamander, but will also remove any oils and chemicals that could be absorbed by the salamander since their skin is permeable. You should handle your spotted close to the ground, over your lap or over a table to prevent any accidental falls that could result in injury.
Habitat - Enclosure
Spotted salamanders are easily housed in 10 and 20 gallon vivariums. A single adult can be housed in a 10 gallon vivarium and an additional 10 gallons of space should be provided for each additional salamander.
Juvenile groups of 3 can reside in a single 20 gallon tank but should be upgraded to a larger vivarium as they mature.
Spotted salamanders will thrive with naturalistic vivarium decor such as pieces of bark, sanitized logs, live plants and smooth rocks. You want to ensure that all cage furnishings are secure and won't topple onto your salamander if they dig beneath them. (This is a highly probable scenario. Our salamander has burrows beneath all of his cage furniture.) You also want to avoid items with sharp edges that could damage their skin.
This species requires a damp substrate in order to thrive. You want to offer a relatively substrate base as spotted salamanders are a burrowing species. We personally use 4+ inches of coconut bedding. Ground pine bark mulch, sphagnum moss, ground sphagnum moss, and ground peat moss are all ideal substrates and retain water well. You can also mix up organic soil and ground peat moss to create a plantable enclosure that retains moisture. Live leaves collected outside can be added to the terrarium floor and allowed to die naturally. Anything brought in from outside should be cleaned and sanitized. Your substrate should be dampened regularly, but not wet. You should be able to feel the moisture but not be able to squeeze it and produce water. If you can squeeze a handful of your substrate and produce water, you have over-saturated the substrate. The substrate should be completely changed out once a month to defer the growth of bacteria and fungus.
Crickets and earthworms are the staples of our spotted salamanders diet. Spotted salamanders will readily take any invertebrate they can overpower and ingest. Our salamanders are fed every other day. If you find that your salamander does not want to feed this often, add an extra day between feedings. Typically these salamanders have a voracious appetite.
Spotted salamanders absorb water through their permeable skin and cloaca, which is why maintaining a damp substrate is so vital. You want to use non-chlorinated water. Spring water is ideal for this species but you can also use tap water that has been treated with a conditioner to remove chlorine or has been left out overnight, allowing the chlorine to dissipate naturally. A dish of water is not required with this species as they don't typically drink in this manner. If you wish to offer a dish of standing water, it should be shallow and easily exited if the salamander were to wander into it.
Room temperture is typically adequate with this species but should be maintained between 55-70°. You do not want to subject these salamanders to temperatures exceeding 75° as it can dry them out, which can be fatal.
This species does not require any special lighting. Unless you are using live plants in their vivarium, you can opt to not use any light at all so long as the room they live in has some ambient light during the day to create a natural photoperiod. Lighting isn't required with this species because they are primarily subterranean and spend most of their time hiding beneath enclosure furnishings. If you want to provide lighting, you should opt to use a non-heat emitting light source such as a CFL. If you have live plants and need to use a full spectrum light, make sure you monitor the enclosures temperatures closely and provide ample ventilation to defer the temps from rising too high.
This species does not have significant markers that make it easily identifiable by gender. If you have a group of spotted salamanders you can attempt to compare them by size. Females tend to be much larger than males. The cloaca of the male tends to be larger than the females, though this can be obscured in captivity by how plump the salamanders can be. Breeding season tends to offer other subtle clues to the gender of these salamanders.
The yellow spots on the male become brighter during breeding season (Smith 1999) as a possible means of helping to attract females. The males may have a swollen vent, with small granules on the distal end. (An obese or plump spotted salamander can make this difficult to distinguish.) This can also lead to false positives when trying to sex a salamander during breeding season because the females cloaca will also swell up as she prepares to absorb the males spermatophores. Sexing requires that you apply every visible characteristic and try to make an educated guess.
Spotted Salamander Egg Mass
Breeding spotted salamanders is a challenge compared to other species of amphibians. Attempts at breeding these guys in an indoor habitat are highly unsuccessful and I was unable to locate successful breeders with indoor set-ups. With that knowledge, breeding these creatures can be done outdoors if you are located in their native habitat, where climatic conditions will respectively trigger their natural breeding response as if they were still wild.
You will need to create a fairly large breeding enclosure spanning at least 8 feet wide by 12 feet long. You can build the enclosure longer or wider if you like. The walls of the enclosure should be 2 feet high, with 12 inches of the wall buried beneath the ground. This will prevent the salamanders from burrowing their way out and will help keep predators from digging their way in. The walls can be constructed of concrete, cinder block or wood. For added protection from predation you can screen the top over with hardware cloth that is fastened with clamps or hooks that can be removed for easy access.
The enclosure will need a man made pond that is roughly 4 feet or more in diameter and a depth of 6 inches in order to offer a successful egg-laying site. A kiddie pool can be recessed and used for this or you can research how to create a shallow pond online. A small pump circulating and aerating the water is suggested to prevent it from becoming stagnant and still enough for mosquito larvae to develop and flourish. The pond should have plants and rocks within it for cover, as well as to exit the water. The pond should be easily entered and exited. Research has shown that this species favors shallow ponds with abundant leaf litter, and other debris on the pond bottom rather than deep(er) ponds with exposed substrate. This can be replicated by simply adding dead leaves, timber and rocks to the bottom of your pond.
The terrain of your enclosure should be compromised of loose dirt, covered in a heavy layer of deciduous tree leaves. The leaves will allow the salamanders to burrow beneath them, where moisture will be trapped. They will also create a natural habitat for small invertebrates for which the salamanders can feed upon. There should also be pieces of logs, solid and rotting placed throughout the enclosure. These logs will act as natural habitats for insects and burrowing locations to help your salamander survive the cold winter months in their burrows.
Your mature salamanders should live in this enclosure year round. This will allow them to become conditioned to their natural reproductive cycle. The spotted salamanders found in Rhode Island and Massachusetts typically breed in mid-March or the first week of April, following snow melt or rain. Spotted salamanders in my area are noted as entering and existing the same breeding pools they have used the previous year. Some travel great distances to reach these common waterways and it is believed (McGregor and Teska 1989) found that olfaction plays a major role in aiding adults in orienting towards their home pond.
Male salamanders tend to arrive at these breeding pools several days before the females. Once the females arrive and enter the water, a nuptial dance begins at the water edge where males swims around nudging the females, swinging his head back and forth over her dorsum and lifting his head under her chin (Petranka 1998). Later in the dance, males alternate between nudging and depositing spermatophores on the pond's bottom which is usually a short distance away from the activity center (Ptingsten and Downs 1989).
The female will position herself over the spermatophores, then grasps them within her cloaca. This will fertilize the eggs, which is internal. The eggs are held within her body for several days before being laid.
A few days after fertilization, the eggs begin to be deposited. The egg masses may be firm spherical, elongate, or kidney-shaped and in most cases attached to submerged objects. (This is why it is suggested to have logs, leafs and rocks in your pond.) It is also common to find egg masses deposited directly on the pond floor.
The eggs will hatch into larva in roughly 30-60 days, depending on the water temperature and food supply. The larva will have feathery gills, fore limb buds, and a pair of balancers (Bishop 1943). As the larva undergoes metamorphosis, the gills will disappear. the balancers typically disappear after a few days (Kenney and Burne 2000). The larvae can grow rapidly when food is abundant and water temperatures are warmer. Most metamorphose within 2-4 months but can be shorter or longer depending on environmental conditions. Upon emerging from the water as minitaure versions of their parents, the juveniles do not have spots but typically develop them within a week of leaving the water.
Once the juveniles have taken to land survival they can be collected and brought inside for sale or personal enjoyment.
The spotted salamander is the state amphibian of South Carolina.
Spotted salamander embryos have been found to have symbiotic algae living inside them.
Spotted Salamander Larva