Note: this article was published in 1999 in Reptiles 7(7). It is reprinted here, with minor modifications, by permission of the author.
Natural Range and Habitat
Seal salamanders, Desmognathus monticola, (Urodela: Family Plethodontidae) are found in the United States from southwestern Pennsylvania to Georgia and Alabama, with a small population in Florida. The salamanders are commonly found among the stones, bark and logs alongside cool mountain streams and ravines, and occasionally in the streams themselves. Seal salamanders take their name from their habit of perching on rocks like small seals. The best time to view seal salamanders is at night after a rain. By walking and shining a flashlight along the stones in or near streams, many more salamanders can be seen than during the day.
In captivity, seal salamanders should be kept in a cool area such as a basement or an air-conditioned room. The salamanders should not be exposed to temperatures above 75°F (24°C) for any extended period of time, as death may result.
Seal salamanders should either be maintained singly or in small groups. If multiple salamanders are to be placed together, size should be considered, as some Desmognathus spp. are known to feed on other salamanders (Jacobs and Taylor 1993). Seal salamanders are very territorial and any acclimation to an enclosure for more than 48 hours will allow it to be claimed as ‘home’ by scent marking. The scent marking is important for the proper acclimation and feeding of the salamanders. If you wish to maintain seal salamanders as a group, then all of the individuals need to be introduced to the cage at the same time. After establishing the group, each individual must be inspected daily for about 2 weeks to check for damage due to combat. If fighting is occurring, the wounded individual must be removed to a separate container. Serious injuries may result under captive conditions. The victorious male frequently bites off part of the loser's tail and devours it.
Plastic shoeboxes with several small holes drilled at the corners for ventilation are an excellent choice for small enclosures. Tight fitting lids are essential to prevent escapes. Moistened unbleached paper towels may be used as a substrate, or the salamander may be maintained by barely submerging the animal in dechlorinated water. The containers should not be cleaned more than twice a week as many plethodontid salamanders scent mark their territories. Crumpled up unbleached paper towels allow the animals to shelter in the resulting crevices. If enclosures need to be sterilized, or territorial markings need to be removed, then a solution of bleach and water may be used as long as the enclosure is thoroughly rinsed to insure that no chlorine residue remains (Wright, 1993; Wright 1994; Rossi and Rossi, 1994). Iodine based cleaners should not be used with plastic amphibian enclosures, as iodine leaching may result in death (Wright, 1993).
Salamanders should be treated for parasitic helminths on acclimation and again at 14 to 21 days. After the second worming, fecal samples should be submitted for examination by a veterinarian. If the salamanders need to be restrained for treatment or examination, then disposable rubber gloves should be worn to prevent the transmission of parasites or diseases to other animals and cages. Also, care should be taken to prevent the tail from breaking during handling.
Seal salamanders may be set up with a stream tank for long-term maintenance and breeding. A stream tank consists of a water flow running from one end of the tank to a pool at the other end. Some form of water barrier is used to form the bed (e.g., bark, plastic sheet, silicon rubber-coated fiberglass screen). The water barrier is weighted down or siliconed down over a gravel bed to prevent the animals from hiding under the barrier. The gravel bed allows water flow and assists in filtration by providing a bacteria bed. The water flow is achieved by a small water pump buried in the gravel and attached to an undergravel filter plate to prevent gravel and animals from being drawn to the intake. The outflow has a plastic tube reaching to the beginning of the stream. When the system is turned on, a stream environment is simulated. You can provide proper shelter by placing and securing flat rocks half in and half out of the water flow.
Adult seal salamanders can be maintained on a diet of 2-week old crickets (Acheta domestica), and/or red worms (Lumbricus) Crickets and red worms should be dusted with a vitamin supplement. The salamanders should be fed on a twice-weekly schedule. Approximately 4-6 small crickets per adult salamander is appropriate.
Larvae should be fed by maintaining a small quantity of live food in with the larvae. Keeping the larvae well-fed reduces the incidence of cannibalism. Food choices for larvae include newly hatched brine shrimp (Artemia), white worms (Enchytraeus) and daphnia (Daphnia). Tubifex worms (Tubifex) and bloodworms (Chironomus) are also possible alternate food sources. When the larvae transform, springtails (Collembola) and flightless fruit flies (Drosophila melanagaster) are appropriate foods.
The female salamanders nest by suspending the eggs from the roof of a chamber under water and then curling up around them. The female will stay with the eggs until they hatch (Bishop, 1943; Organ, 1961). When oviposition is imminent, the females should be disturbed as little as possible, with some researchers letting as long as six weeks pass before disturbing the female (Houck, Tilley, and Arnold, 1985). When females are ready to oviposit, the eggs may be seen as a yellowish mass through the abdominal wall. Females may retain eggs for over a year (personal observation) if no appropriate oviposition sites are available. Once laid, eggs should take at least 30 days to hatch, depending on the temperatures of the water, with lower temperatures extending the development process.
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© Ed Kowalski 1999. Posted December 2005.