Last updated 15 June 2000: added Individual Species: Levels 1-3 of Newts & Salamanders
Newts and salamanders comprise about nine families of the Order Urodela (or Caudata) belonging to the Class Amphibia. In some ways they more closely resemble their Carboniferous ancestors than do today's better-known amphibians, the Anurans (frogs and toads). They are considered primitive animals, but both from the anatomical and herpetological view have certain advantages.
There are a number of these creatures that are both attractive and easy to keep in captivity, as well as those that are considered more difficult and better left to experts or experienced keepers. However, from my reading of the subject none seem to be as difficult as the difficult members of the reptile class. For a start 99% grow no larger than a foot (and that's big for a member of this order), and most of them need to be kept relatively cool rather than heated to desert-like temperatures, nor do they need a huge amount of light. Most will quite happily eat a variety of invertebrates that are easily obtainable from either pet shops or your own garden, eg crickets and earthworms.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of keeping newts and salamanders is water quality, as most are semi- or totally aquatic. If you have ever kept coldwater- or tropical fish then you will have some idea of the measure of the task. However, it should be added that modern aquarium equipment can assist to a large degree, for example with the use of filters.
Of the readily available newts and salamanders seen in the pet trade, a few spring to mind as good starters. The Axolotl is a well-known member of the Amphystoma genus that has been kept and successfully bred for many years by thousands of keepers. In fact, as Chris Mattison notes, while the wild population of axolotls is in dire straits due to pollution and other man-made pressures on their lake, thousands of captive axolotls are thriving around the world. The Axolotl possesses the fascinating ability to regenerate lost organs, even after serious damage, although obviously this does not justify wanton cruelty to a captive, even in the name of science. The Fire Salamander is perhaps the archetypal salamander, but ironically is completely terrestrial, only using water to lay its eggs. The young must leave water when they metamorphose or they drown. These are apparently quite easy to maintain in captivity and are beautifully coloured. Newts such as the Japanese Fire-Bellied Newt are aquatic, but being small can easily be kept in an ordinary fish aquarium.
Hobbyists such as Marc Stanizewski have demonstrated the practicality of keeping a reasonably large collection of newts and salamanders out of doors in simple enclosures, using greenhouse protection for the more tropical species. It is to be hoped that more herpetologists will take this up, as an outdoor enclosure in some ways requires less maintenance than an indoor aquarium.
A quick tour of newt- and salamander keeping:
What are newts and salamanders?
So you fancy buying a newt or salamander?
Level 1 - newts and salamanders that make a good first choice for the beginner.
Level 2 - newts and salamanders that are generally good captives but have one or two quirks or requirements that should be taken into consideration first.
Level 3 - newts and salamanders that have exacting requirements and probably need experienced keepers.
Level 4 - for zoos only.
Please note that the above is not a comprehensive list, and will be added to in the course of time. Consider it rather a selection of better known species and their merits (and occasional drawbacks).
Index of Newt & Salamander Articles published within the last few years.