Amphibians of Montana: From Water Dog to Tiger Salamander

Updated on April 11, 2018
Observing an adult Blotched Tiger Salamander
Observing an adult Blotched Tiger Salamander | Source

From Waterdog to Tiger Salamander

Frogs and snakes

And salamander's tails,

That's what little boys are made of.

Isn't that the way it goes? Well, it does around my house. My kids love nature and, now that it is summer, they have discovered a whole new world of fun in the local ponds and waterways. Frogs, snakes, and big, slimy salamanders are just a few of the residents in the wetland areas of Montana. The blotched tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum melanostictum) is the current far out favorite.

Larvae or "Waterdogs"

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Hatchling waterdogWaterdog rescued from the bait shop by Furryscaly Neotenic Tiger Salamander: a neotenic is a salamander that reaches sexual maturity with out losing its aquatic features.  In-other-words, it does not outgrow the larval stage.  It is unclear why some salamanders do this.
Hatchling waterdog
Hatchling waterdog | Source
Waterdog rescued from the bait shop by Furryscaly
Waterdog rescued from the bait shop by Furryscaly | Source
Neotenic Tiger Salamander: a neotenic is a salamander that reaches sexual maturity with out losing its aquatic features.  In-other-words, it does not outgrow the larval stage.  It is unclear why some salamanders do this.
Neotenic Tiger Salamander: a neotenic is a salamander that reaches sexual maturity with out losing its aquatic features. In-other-words, it does not outgrow the larval stage. It is unclear why some salamanders do this. | Source

What Is a Tiger Salamander?

The tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) is a land-dwelling amphibian that returns to the water to breed. Like most amphibians, the young metamorphose from a water-breathing larva to an air-breathing adult.

The blotched type is found in North America from Southern Alberta to Northern Colorado. Adults live most of the year in muddy burrows, usually dug by rodents. They emerge from hibernation in the late spring and migrate to ponds or vernal pools to breed. Females lay eggs in gelatinous bunches on aquatic plants; these eggs typically hatch within three weeks.

After breeding, the adults return to their muddy homes while the salamander larvae, called "waterdogs" are left to fend for themselves. Waterdogs are fish-like with large, feathery gills behind the head. They are approximately 3 inches (76mm) in length, are a light brown and grow darker as they mature. They almost immediately develop short legs. If they survive, the rest of their amazing transformation will occur in the late summer.

Blotched tiger salamander adults range from olive to brown to black with yellow blotches or stripes. Like the larvae, the adults generally get darker in color with age. They have a broad head and a wide mouth. Adults can reach up to 9 inches (230mm) in length, making them the largest land-dwelling salamanders in the world. They can live up to 20 years or more in captivity.

Waterdogs feed on mosquito and other larvae when they are very small. As they grow, they will eat larger insects and worms. Unfortunately for them, they are eaten by just about everything: birds, snakes, fish, mammals and even used as fishing bait by humans. Most of the young will not survive to adulthood.

Sadly, the tiger salamander numbers are dropping alarmingly as habitats are destroyed and as weather patterns have shifted towards dryer conditions in recent years. The larva cannot survive if the breeding pools dry before they reach maturity.

Adult Tiger Salamander
Adult Tiger Salamander | Source

Why Are Tiger Salamanders Dying in Yellowstone National Park?

According to Stanford researchers, global warming is to blame for the loss of suitable breeding pools for amphibians in Yellowstone National Park. Amphibians, such as salamanders and frogs, are considered early indicators of environmental change. Yellowstone wetlands, ideal for amphibian habitat, have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Huge declines in amphibian populations have been reported.

During one study, researchers observed the loss of four separate breeding pools. The pools dried so rapidly the adults were unable to migrate. Hundreds of adult and juvenile salamanders were left dead in the process. "It is a symptom of a much, much larger problem," said Sarah McMenamin, lead researcher.¹

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Mom helping to catch creepy critters...what I will do for my boys, sheesh!Fish and FrogsOh yes, snakes too.
Mom helping to catch creepy critters...what I will do for my boys, sheesh!
Mom helping to catch creepy critters...what I will do for my boys, sheesh!
Fish and Frogs
Fish and Frogs
Oh yes, snakes too.
Oh yes, snakes too.

Tiger Salamanders as Pets

Tiger salamanders are popular as pets. They are generally acquired in the larval (aquatic) stage and so must be kept in an aquarium. Optimal water temperature is 65-70º F (18-21º C). Good water quality with proper pH must be maintained; this requires a filter and aeration.

When the larva begins to metamorphose into an adult, it will lose its gills and, therefore, its ability to live under water. Land area must then be provided and the amount of water reduced. This can be done gradually.

When metamorphosis is complete, the tank can be entirely terrestrial. The salamander will need moist, loose soil suitable for burrowing. Cages must be cleaned frequently so don't go for anything too elaborate. Provide some bark and a few rocks as well as a shallow dish of water (only an inch deep or so.) Larvae must be fed small insects, brine shrimp, and worms. Adults will eat crickets, worms, and other insects.

Salamanders supposedly become friendly or at least docile as they adjust to life in captivity. Until then, they may try to bite but have teeth too small to do any damage to humans, although they can do damage to each another. Do not house large and small salamanders together or adults with larvae. Be very careful when handling salamanders; they have very porous, delicate skin. Wash hand thoroughly before handling and use wet hands to touch the salamander.

Caring for Tiger Salamanders


¹Global Warming Is Killing Frogs And Salamanders In Yellowstone Park, Researchers Say. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 12, 2011, from­/releases/2008/10/081028184830.htm

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


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    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      7 years ago from The Zoo

      Thanks howcurecancer!

    • howcurecancer profile image


      7 years ago

      So much fun!

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      7 years ago from The Zoo

      Hahaha...thanks Matt! They're actually kinda cool...kinda.

    • mattdigiulio profile image


      7 years ago

      Awesome! I never thought I'd WANT to read about tiger salamanders, but you changed my mind yet again. Voting up.

      Best, Matt

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      7 years ago from The Zoo

      Hahahaha...I didn't know that porcupines had smelly excretions. I did just recently discover that snakes stink...ugh!

    • tsadjatko profile image

      7 years ago from now on

      The Porcupine, yes that porcupine. We got him in the mountains and I wanted to take him home to show my friends in the suburbs but first we were going to Niagara Falls at night - my brother and I had to ride 5 hours sleeping on the back seat of our Impala and right below my head in a chicken wire cage about 1 foot square was the porcupine (he was a young adult) on a piece of cardboard box on the floor of the back seat. This is when I discovered how badly porcupine's excretions smell - kept me up all the way to the falls...pewwwwwwwwww! I decided then this was one pet I wasn't keeping for long!

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      7 years ago from The Zoo

      Tsadjatko--you certainly have! (I checked out your latest the porcupine!)

    • tsadjatko profile image

      7 years ago from now on

      I've had some experience with menageries too. Great hub, I'm watching for more like this.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      7 years ago from The Zoo

      Hi akirchner and thanks!

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 

      7 years ago from Washington

      Wow - I would have been passed out on the floor - I'm deathly afraid of snakes and salamanders although I know they're not the same really freak me out. All that said, spectacular subject and you indeed are a GREAT mom~! Thumbs up - great pictures and great global warming message.....good luck in the contest~!

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      8 years ago from The Zoo

      Paradise, the snakes make me want to scream and run but I actually think the salamanders are kinda cool:)

      K9, thank you so much!

      Denise, I'm glad you understand, thanks!

      Cara, I just saw the photos of your kids with the starfish and other stuff...they would fit right in, heehee!

      Simone---they are sort of awesome, in a slimy way...and thank you too!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Whoah! Tiger Salamanders are awesome! Your family has way too much fun. Great photos, great tips on taking care of 'em... and great environmental points, too! I hope the salamanders at Yellowstone find a way to adapt to global warming-quick!

    • cardelean profile image


      8 years ago from Michigan

      My kids would love these if they were around us. They love to hunt for frogs, crayfish, and turtles in the summer. Nicely done.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      What fun! I remember the days of playing with frogs, toads, and snakes down by the river bank near our home. We had a load of boys in our neighborhood so there was always something interesting going on.

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 

      8 years ago from Northern, California

      What a fun Mom You are Mrs. M! I am fascinated by your shared adventures here. Luck boys you have my dear.

      Up! and awesome.


    • Paradise7 profile image


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      How cool!! And you're a great MOM, too, I know your boys much think so, because you help them catch creatures. My mom would have screamed and ran!


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