Don't Do This! Captive Care Catastrophes

Compiled by Jennifer Macke

Things can go wrong. For beginners, problems are often due to lack of knowledge. For experienced hobbyists, things can still go wrong. This list of misfortunes was assembled from e-mails sent to me by experienced hobbyists.


Note: Escape is by far the most common catastrophe. See Preventing Escape.

“I feel bad (being new to keeping sallys). I didnt realize how good of escape artists they were. Well this morning I woke up to 2 missing. And found them dead.”

“My first newt, a paddletailed newt, also escaped. I didn't know that they could climb over an overhang of glass.”

“First, after waking up I discovered I was missing one of my three new warties. The lid was slightly ajar and there was an opening. I was surprised they could climb! …That would be plenty, but then later in the day I noticed my paddletail also missing! Didn't discover her until hours later but while looking for her, I found the mummified remains of the crested newt that I lost months ago. Since I started keeping newts again last year, I've lost four adults this way.  And plenty of juvies. Just goes to show, never assume a newt can't climb, and keep that lid on tight! As you can imagine, I'm in the process of taking extraordinary measures now....”

Air conditioning failure

“Back on the last weekend of August I went out of town on a Friday after work and came back on Sunday evening to find out the circuit breaker for my air conditioner kicked off. I came home to a house that was in the mid-nineties. 3 of my 4 marbled newts were dead, all 12 of my inch long baby alpines I'd just gotten in a week earlier were dead and 4 of my six adult karelinii were dead. The last marbled and the 2 remaining karelinii died from the stress over the next couple of weeks. I also lost about a dozen young axolotls that were born that spring. I don't know how long the power was off but the only things that survived were my tigers which just burrowed under the damp soil, and my adult axolotls in the large tank which must have taken longer for the temperature to rise in. The whole thing made me sick. I had an electrician in to re-do my electric and basically restarted my collection from scratch.”

“I lost a couple male and female T. shanjing and the only T. verrucosus this summer in a heat weave when my AC unit went out”

“This summer my AC unit went out during 105F weather and I ultimately lost some of my cooler caudata. Which included many of triturus and my very small (now even smaller!) group of T. shanjing… It seems silly to keep such cool climate caudates in this climate. But one thing is for sure after this summer I learned to always have a window AC unit available!”

Bad food

“Well I've had quite a hard blow to my herp collection. I recently got a bad batch of crickets, that I believe were carrying some kind of pesticide on them. Almost every animal I have that ate these crickets, died shortly after. Some being the karelinii, I am sorry to say. I lost in total about $600 worth of animals, including some rare lizards, as well as other Triturus. Luckily, the animals that ate the bad crickets died soon enough for me to figure it out and not feed everyone. So, I did not lose EVERYthing. Though I lost a lot.” 

“For years now I have used live bloodworm, destined for the angling shops for live bait. They are imported from the Netherlands I believe, and wrapped in damp newspaper, and in this state keep very well for 2-3 weeks in the fridge. Yesterday I purchased some from my usual supplier, and proceeded to feed various aquatic newts, and also larvae. Everything that was fed with the bloodworm has died within 12 hours of ingesting them. The bloodworm was fresh and clean, and looked perfectly normal in water. Here is a list of what I did lose. Adults and juveniles: 5 Chioglossa lusitanica, 1 Euproctus platycephalus, 5 Tylototriton verrucosus, 22 Cynops orientalis, 6 Cynops ensicauda popei, 6 Paramesotriton fuzhongensis, 6 Paramesotriton caudopunctatus, 7 Triturus karelinii, 10 Triturus a. alpestris, 10 Triturus a. apuanus, 12 Triturus italicus, 17 Notopthalmus v. viridescens, 9 Hymenochirus boettgeri. Larvae: Ambystoma opacum, Ambystoma mexicanum, Pleurodeles waltl, 400 odd Salamandra, Tylototriton shanging, Tylototriton verrucosus.”

Ingestion of Gravel (or other foreign objects)

“While feeding the newts my huge female T. taliangensis snapped up a rather large pebble while eating an earthworm section. It was so large that for the split second before she swallowed it I thought for sure that she would spit it out. I had to go to work immediately afterwards and I was hoping that she regurgitated it. She seemed fine throughout the week however when I went to feed today she was dead.”

“I had a toad die on me for the exactly the same thing. I thought there was absolutely no way it could have swallowed a rock the size of its head. I've switched to sand or bare bottom on all my animals now as a result.”

“I've pretty much only used gravel that appears small enough to pass through the digestive system or big enough to not be swallowed. But a couple of years ago, I did have a Cynops pyrrhogaster die a day after I witnessed it swallow a piece of foil that came off the frozen bloodworm package.”


“I had a 29 gallon tank that was filled with algae.  So, I took everything out of it, and bleached it and the gravel.  Well, a few days later, I drained as much water as I could, added five more gallons of tap water, then drained it again.  Well, I filled it up, and used 2 times the amount of dechlorinator as you are supposed to.  I let it sit for a day with a filter running, and then I made a large land area, and put the newts on it.  Well, I woke up about 8 hours later, and all but 2 of the newts were dead.  I have a small male and a small female left.  I promptly moved them back to their old home, and I think they will be ok.  The elodea I put in there is yellow now, also.  So, I know that there must've been too much chlorine left.”

New tankmates

“I lost my whole tank of Chinese firebellies that I had for over a year now. I put in a new tank mate several months ago and just the other day I went to check on them and all six were dead.”

“I put a healthy (captive bred) newt of mine in with some that I recently obtained (same species, but wild-caught) and the captive bred newt died in a week or two. This happened, even though I kept them separate for several weeks to make sure the new ones were healthy.”

“I kept several local tiger salamanders in a heavily planted wooded tank. While at a pet shop recently I saw bait tigers and many looked to be from different regions - so I chose a pair of each of the patterns (total of 6). Because the giant 55 gallon tiger tank with all its burrows, wood and live plants was already set up for tigers (it had 5 in there) I felt it was a suitable place to keep these guys until I could get them each a setup based on spot patterns. I skipped quarantine - I know I shouldn’t but I have done so before w/o problems (with other species), and the 3 months SUGGESTED is not enough for some problems. Well problems started within the first week, one of the bait tigers died - no big deal i think as it can happen to pet store animals. Well the next week I had 3 die - all of these are my native guys. The next week 2 more died. This week I had another of my locals die.”

Abrupt water change

“Last night I moved eight P. chinensis from an overcrowded 10 gallon (60cm long) tank with aged water to a roomy 90cm x 45cm tank with all new water, dechlorinated. This morning, I awoke to find one of them dead...!”

“I recently put two Cynops orientalis adults in a new tank of water (to provide more space in the colony) and both died within an hour. Since they had been pulled out of a pretty stable colony, I figured it had to be the water as the likely culprit. I did a quick test for ammonia, nitrates and pH. First two were fine but the pH level was 8.4! All of the established tanks tested within normal ranges (around 6.8 to 7.0).”

Contagious disease

“I received some warty newts (Paramesotriton hongkongensis) from a pet shop. They arrived looking good. Within a couple of days they showed signs of illness. They developed ulcers everywhere, including eating off the toes. After they died, it showed up in my other tanks. All my Paramesotritons were wiped out. I lost all my beloved T. boscai, and some others. The Cynops were not affected at all. What was even worse, I received some T. italicus 8 months later, long after signs of the disease had stopped. Within a couple of weeks, they had it too. So I systematically went through and bleached all tanks, filters, and decorations. Haven't had a problem since.”

“I've had a problem with my Triturus karelinii larvae. I had them in 3 separate tubs. All of a sudden, they started dieing in one small tub. I lost 11 out of 12, with the last one saved by moving it into a clean container every day. But then a few days later the same thing started in the big tub with over 30 larvae in it. I lost one, then two more, then I lost about 12 of them in one night. The third tub with about 10 of them remained 100% alive and well. I know this wasn't a water quality problem, as I monitored that carefully in all 3 tubs. And they were all getting the same food. It absolutely had to be something contagious. As soon as I put in a broad spectrum antibiotic (kanamycin + nitrofurazone), the deaths stopped. The ones that died went quickly, and almost disintegrated after they died. They had no sign of fungus or any other obvious symptoms before death.”

“This spring I suffered a major loss in the salamander collection. Although nothing is sure, I assume I made a bad move while photographing the animals. For the purpose of taking some "quality" shots of various species, I had set up a seperate tank with a clean window front. The older tanks in which I keep the animals all have scratches, which result in bad/undetailed shots, especially when using flash. After a period of 2 weeks, during which the tank got 'balanced' the animals were placed in it and about an hour or 2 later (when the animals were at their ease) the images were taken. Thereafter, they were placed back in their original tank… So far so good. About one week later, I started losing animals at a quite dramatic speed in all the groups that I had been photographing. The final tally is very dramatic: all the animals from Cynops cyanurus, Pleurodels nebulosus, Cynops pyrrhogaster (Kii peninsula, with unusual color pattern), Triturus marmoratus, Triturus hybrid & Pachytriton D died in a period of one week. Needless to say how I felt during those last weeks … I think I have never been so close to quitting keeping salamanders.”

Predators that eat larvae

“Add the problem of cyclops eating larvae... I just lost 3 Paramesotriton hongkongensis larvae to them. This species of cyclops managed to eat 3 larvae in 12 hrs without leaving a trace. They gang up on the larvae and eat its gills, killing it, then eat the whole thing....”

“I cannot tell you haw many simple mistakes i have made over the years in keeping amphibians that have directly resulted in animal deaths (like dragon fly nymphs in an outdoor tank that ate all my tiger larvae).”


“I had a preventable death yesterday of one of my popei morphs. I had placed a wadded up paper towel in a morph set up, it was wet - very wet and I had moved it around 2 days ago to check on all the ones hiding in its crevices, but I guess by doing that I also trapped one in and it suffocated over the past 2 days.”

“In a shipment of 50 juveniles, one died. The tub was crowded and contained very wet paper toweling. It was probable that the one that died either drowned or was smothered by the toweling and crowding by the other animals.”

Hollow ornaments

“I had (still have) a fire belly newt that disappeared for SIX MONTHS (really). I thought he'd escaped and died. Then one day, there he was, poking around the tank, a little skinnier but the same old newt. I thought he was hiding in a decoration but maybe he was stuck and could escape once he got skinnier? or maybe just hiding. I also once had a newt die that got stuck in a small hole in a decoration he was trying to swim through.”

“I got home to find 1 FB in my tank instead of 2! I frantically searched everywhere and haven't found him. The lid was secured. The only thing i can think of is that it may of possibly made an escape into one of the tank ornaments! I carefully lifted up the ornament to have a look and the hole goes quite deep into the ornament and is winding (loads of nooks and crannies and such). I have no idea what to do. (If he does come out again I will DEFINATLY find a way to close the hole. and if anyone has an ornament like this i avidly suggest the same.) He's in there, I got a flashlight and saw his little feet in a corner. I don't know if he's stuck or just hiding.”

Axolotl jumping

“My axie jumped out his tank...he's still alive but he's bleeding a bit and he's got cuts on him. ”

“When I woke up this morning I found it [axolotl] lying on the floor (it's about a 4 ft drop), I assume it jumped out as it is a bit of a frisky little bugger. I don't know how long it was out of the water for and noticed when I put it back in the tank that both its wrists were facing the opposite way, when it walks around the palms face upwards. I don't know if it's going through any pain and am very worried about it. ”


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