Tiger Salamander - Beginners Care Guide
The tiger salamander is the largest land dwelling salamander in the world and is endemic to North America. On average an adult will grow up to between 6 and 8 inches whereas some recorded individuals have reached 14 inches in length. They're usually a blotchy grey, green or black colour and they have yellow bands or blotches on their back. Typically they are voracious predators emerging at night to feast on worms, insects, frogs and other salamanders. In captivity they typically live for 10 to 15 years.
Salamanders are seen as delicate, secretive and more challenging than keeping frogs and not very good pets in general which means they usually aren't at the top of the list for most reptile and amphibian enthusiasts. These are valid concerns in the case of many salamander species particularly the ones on the smaller side. However the tiger salamander is none of the above and it makes an excellent hardy captive pet. It is probably the most interactive species of amphibian that you can keep as a pet.
At one point in time the tiger salamander was considered a single species, however over the past couple of decades scientists have recognised that it is actually several closely related species. These include the California tiger, the Eastern tiger and the Mexican tiger. There is also the black tiger and the barred tiger salamander which are subspecies of the barred tiger species complex.
The colours that tiger salamanders come in vary from bright yellow stripes on a dark brown or black background to pure blue grey and black with orange spots. Even within individual races the variety of colours and markings can be surprising on an individual basis. Some races are either made up of populations of aquatic adults that look very similar to their close relative, the axolotl.
Tiger salamanders are found from the shores of the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast of the continental United States as well as in southern Canada and as far south as into Mexico. In fact tiger salamanders are arguably more widespread than the American bullfrog, but while almost everyone has seen a bullfrog, the tiger salamander makes barely any noise and spends a lot of time underground so many people don't even realise that they're there.
Tiger salamanders are a part of the group known as mole salamanders. They use their strong legs and feet for digging, have relatively small eyes and a heavy build which are all good adaptations if you spend much of your life digging in the dirt.
Housing tiger salamanders is very straightforward, however if you are buying tiger salamanders that haven't metamorphosed yet then the technique for keeping them is very different and they’re more similar to keeping an axolotl. You can read our guide on that here.
For an adult tiger salamander we recommend keeping them in a terrarium of at least 20 gallons in volume for two individuals. Make sure you opt for a long aquarium over a high one because the salamanders will not use the vertical space provided by most display aquariums. Being mole salamanders, tigers like to burrow which means when you first acquire them they tend to spend most of the time being buried in the substrate until feeding time. When you choose a salamander substrate you should opt for a commercial topsoil mix like the ones that you can purchase from a hardware store. Be sure to purchase one that's free from fertilizers and artificial ingredients. This is because like all amphibians, salamanders have permeable skin and can absorb toxins readily from their surroundings.
If you have access to a garden that is free from insecticides or herbicides, another option is to gather your own soil. If you don't have access to either of these options then a third option is to use coconut fibre which is sometimes sold as coir. However real topsoil and commercial topsoil mixes offer a more chemically and biologically stable environment than coconut fibre and require much less frequent changing.
These large amphibians will often ingest particles accidentally as they lunge for their food and as such, small fragments of bark and coconut fibre could potentially lead to compactions and the death of your salamander. If the substrate used contains large particles consider passing it through some fine wire mesh prior to use in the terrarium.
You'll need at least 4 inches of substrate to allow for their digging. Deeper is better from the tigers point of view and wild tigers have been uncovered as far as 5 feet under the ground. The substrate should be spot cleaned of waste food and faeces wherever possible and should be changed completely every three to 4 months or more regularly if you use coconut fibre.
If you've got a planted terrarium this will 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 want to use plants, consider opting for harder to uproot plants such as devil's ivy or consider artificial silk plants.
As well as burying themselves under the substrate, they also excavate semi-permanent tunnels and just sit inside with their heads poking out, waiting for food. To help retain moisture in the substrate a good option is placing sphagnum moss over a lot of the substrate which will stop the moisture evaporating from it.
Misting the tank is unnecessary as tiger salamanders do well in a wide range of humidity. as a general guideline the substrate should be moist but when squeezing in your hands it shouldn't drip. You can also add a large water bowl if desired, just be sure that it can easily be entered and exited.
In terms of temperatures the tiger salamander will be active and thriving when kept between 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You can maintain the temperature by using a heat mat under one side of the tank which will create a heat gradient meaning that the salamander can heat itself up if it wants to, but can also retreat to a cooler place if it wants to cool down.
Because tiger salamanders are usually nocturnal this means that terrarium lighting is not required. You can use a light though, so that you can see your pet. A new salamander will tend to be wary when being subjected to bright light for long periods of time but they do tend to overcome this rather quickly. Lighting is also a benefit for any live plants you have in your enclosure as well as being for your viewing pleasure. Bulbs that emit large amounts of heat are best avoided, if you are keeping plants make sure to use a plant friendly bulb in the range of 4000 to 10000 Kelvin. LED lighting systems are a great solution.
When it comes to feeding time, new tiger salamanders will tend to spend much of their time buried within the substrate so you may find that you have to dig your salamander out in order to feed it. As they become more tame they will spend more time on the surface and you won't have to do this as often. However one feeding trick is to gently tap on the Terrarium wall a few times before you take the salamander out for feeding time. Over time they will learn that the tapping indicates that it's feeding time and buried salamanders will usually emerge after a moment.
Tiger salamanders don't need any extra vitamins and minerals so dusting that food isn't needed. They feed in the wild on things such as beetles, earthworms and crickets where as in captivity nightcrawlers are an excellent staple food as are the crickets sold as live reptile food. If you're going with crickets make sure that they have got loaded with vegetables or a commercial cricket diet in order to improve the nutrient content.
Tiger salamanders often become obese so it's important to limit food such as wax worms to occasional treats. Waxworms are easily the favourite food of tiger salamanders and even the most reluctant salamander will find it hard to refuse them. It often helps to gently hold waxworms with forceps and rub it near the nose and the mouth of the Tiger salamander. This is an especially useful trick for newly captive tigers that are overly shy or skinny.
Tiger salamanders have insatiable appetites but only give as much as can be consumed by each tiger in 15 minutes. For adults this usually means 2 nightcrawlers and adults should be fed two to three times per week during the warmer parts of the year. During winter months you can reduce this to once every 1 or 2 weeks 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.