The Mandarin Salamander FAQ
by Marc S Staniszewski
The Mandarin Salamander (Tylototriton shanjing)
The small and primitive genus Tylototriton (family Salamandridae) includes
some of the strangest caudates known. There are five described species which have been
split into two sub-genera; Tylototriton and Echinotriton. Echinotriton is so called
because of the extremely sharp spines (from the Greek Echino which means spiny or spiky)
which, in 2 species, are able to penetrate through small apertures in the flanks to act as
a defensive mechanism against predation. The genus Tylototriton contains the most
colourful and primitive species of which one in particular, the Mandarin salamander (Tylototriton
shanjing (=verrucosus)) perhaps represents one of the most stunning caudates.
Fortunately it is this species which is most likely to appear in the hobby, once due to
large scale imports, recently as a result of small-scale European captive breeding
The beautiful markings make the Mandarin Salamander
(Tylototriton shanjing) a unique caudate species
DISTRIBUTION & BEHAVIOURAL MECHANISMS
Also called the Emperor or crocodile newt, the Mandarin salamander hails
from the mountains of western China (primarily in the Himalayan subregion of western
Yunan), Burma, extreme northeast India, northern Thailand (where it is probably extinct)
and Nepal. Here it inhabits cool woodland and forest often in the vicinity of slow-moving
water. Attaining a length of 6 - 8 inches (15.24 - 20.32cm), its vivid dorsal coloration
of a dazzling orange vertebral stripe culminating in a completely orange tail along with
12 - 14 orange rounded protuberances along the ribs on a black, dark brown or maroon
background makes it conspicuous. Therefore it would seemingly be quite open to predation.
However apart from being quite shy (which is anomalous with its captive behaviour as can
be seen later), its skin contains some rather distasteful and potentially harmful
alkaloids. In addition the skull and upper vertebrae are heavily armoured with additional
layers of thick bone (which gives it the appearance of wearing a decorate crown hence the
name emperor) which serves to deter predators. The startling coloration actually enables
it to bath freely in the open during the day where the shifting reflection of light
against the pebbly beds in the water enables a phenomenon known as cryptic colouring (ie.
the colours are broken up so that they merge with the colours of the pebbles). Even so
certain water snakes of the genus Natrix and raptors (birds of prey) are known to prey on
this salamander without displaying any adverse effects. Therefore it is generally accepted
that this is the main reason for the mandarin salamander being primarily nocturnal in the
wild - a trait which is not common in captive specimens.
Up until recently most mandarin salamanders were imported to Europe and the US from wild
caught specimens originating in Thailand. In 1992 alone nearly 10,000 were exported from
this region and inevitably this lead to the probable extinction of Tylototriton from this
country. Since then strict laws limiting the collection of this and other amphibians have
come into force and therefore this wild-caught specimens are only likely to be available
in small quantities. Unfortunately such specimens still tend to be poorly treated during
capture and subsequent shipment resulting in some unpleasant ailments which can prove
difficult to treat (see disease section).
Another better source is the increasingly successful efforts of breeders in Britain and
Germany (for some reason this species is not as sought after in the US and therefore few
people attempt to breed them). Occasionally juvenile and sub-adults are available in
specialist herptile outlets which represent healthy individuals (if properly cared for by
the dealer) which will settle down and make excellent captives.
From experience I have found that the first few weeks of new captive life
of the mandarin salamanders, whether of wild-caught or captive bred origin (although
especially the former), can determine how well it succeeds thereafter. Poor treatment
often leads to a rapid decline in the salamanders health, particularly loss of appetite
and malnutrition. Therefore it is important to provide at the very least comfortable
surrounds and optimum temperatures, photoperiod. light intensity and diet. In addition I
found they prefer to be kept isolated during such a period and this allows the hobbyist to
determine the health of each specimen. Mandarin salamanders virtually always refuse food
during their first few days in a new captive set-up but if given plenty of dark, cool and
humid hiding places, a temperature in the 60 - 70°F band, twelve hours of low light
intensity (I have found the 7W night-light bulbs ideal) they soon come to terms with their
new surrounds. The favourite food (and I have offered these salamanders many types) is
most certainly waxworm or tebo's (for larger specimens). These can be dusted freely with
Once over the initial 'quarantine' period where specimens are frequently emerging from
their hides during daylight and taking food regularly, mandarin salamanders can be
introduced together into a suitable container. I have found that an all-glass aquarium is
quite appropriate as this species does not especially object to the 'openness' of glass. A
36-inch aquarium will quite comfortably house up to four specimens with a 3:1 or 2:2 male
to female ratio being preferred where breeding is to be attempted. This must have a secure
lid as, like most caudates, mandarin salamanders can escape out of the smallest gaps.
Adequate ventilation is also essential.
The aquarium must be scaped in the land:water fashion with water being in the form of a
suitable bowl or other container or preferably a glass division (see diagram 1). The
latter allows one of the small pumps that have recently come on to the market to be neatly
located in a corner which aerates, agitates and cleans the water (if an undergravel filter
is fitted) - essential where breeding is concerned. The depth should be no greater than 4
inches (10.16cm) at its deepest part, rising gradually out of the water by utilizing rocks
and bogwood up to the glass division. The reason for this is that Mandarin salamanders are
not particularly adept swimmers although they seem to enjoy bathing. In the main however,
during the non-reproductive period they are largely terrestrial.
The land section should consist of lots of rocks and bogwood with plenty of hiding places
and can be padded out with a moist moss (Java moss is probably the best type as is does
not seem to deteriorate like ordinary sphagnum).
Heating & Lighting
The aquarium should never be located in a room that catches a lot of sun,
especially in summer. Lighting should be quite subdued as mentioned earlier as this
encourages specimens to leave their nighttime hiding places in search of food - a habit
that is very unusual in caudate amphibia. In normal room temperatures of 68°F., a
night-light will not give out much heat. The actual temperature range at which these
salamanders are active depends on their region of origin. For instance those hailing from
Thailand can tolerate higher temperatures than types from China and Nepal, but are less
able to tolerate cold conditions. As most individuals directly or indirectly originate
from Thailand it can be assumed that the temperature should be in the 55 - 75°F. range
although as low as 40°F. and as high as 85°F. will be tolerated for short periods. Below
50°F. and these salamanders enter a period of dormancy (which proves integral where
breeding is to be attempted).
Once settled down in captivity, these salamanders are voracious, even greedy eaters. Most
foods that smell acceptable are taken but after studying this species for fifteen years I
have found that the following list represents the ten most relished foods in order;
3) Earthworm (not those from compost heaps)
4) White Slugs
5) Cabbage-white caterpillars
6) Strips of lean beef
7) Crane-fly larvae
8) Chopped pinkie mice
9) Crickets (cooled down in fridge)
10) Brown Slugs
Of course it is essential that any invertebrates that have been collected from the garden
should be free of pesticide and in the case of earthworms, thoroughly swilled in fresh
water. All food can be liberally dusted in multivitamin powder although if the food is
varied enough, this need only be at every third or fourth feed.
Sexing these salamanders is extremely easy with males possessing a much
more swollen cloaca, tending to be rather smaller and more streamlined. They also have
somewhat thicker forearms.
The reproductive behaviour of Tylototriton shows remarkable similarities to the western
European/North African ribbed newt Pleurodeles waltl. Usually mating takes place in water.
A few weeks after a dormancy period from December to March where the temperature should
not rise above 55°F., the male attempts to wrestle a female into the water using his
snout and hooked forearms (which he interlocks with the females forearms and drags her
along). This may take hours or days depending on the female receptiveness but eventually a
successful mating will occur. Fertilization is external, the male dropping up to three
small cone-shaped spermatophores which he then nudges or drags the females cloaca across.
However I have also observed this behaviour on land and sometimes fertilization may occur
without there being any contact whatsoever between the two sexes.
Egg Deposition & Care
Females then undergo a 7 - 21 day period of ova development (although sometimes even
though a successful pairing is observed no eggs are subsequently laid). She then begin to
search in the water for suitable egg-laying sites. In all my own successes, eggs have been
adhered in small clumps of 10 - 15 eggs to the side of partially submerged rocks. The
normal quantity is within the 40 - 60 range although as many as 100 eggs have been
reported. Eggs are about 2mm diameter with a yellowish nucleus.
Although Zimmerman reports that eggs should be removed to rearing tanks, I have found this
to prove fatal with many eggs spoiling as a result. Therefore I recommend that eggs should
be left in situ for the time being although the aerator part of the pump should be
switched off as this may prove troublesome to the resultant larvae. I have never known
adults to devour their own eggs as mandarin salamanders rarely take food underwater.
Hatching and Larval Care
At a water temperature of 65 - 70°F. the larvae hatch in 10 - 18 days and
measure approximately 9mm in length. Allow them to grow on for a period until they are
15mm at which point they should be moved to a large aquaria with about 4 inches of gently
aerated water and plenty of oxygenating plants such as Elodea. Initially yellow, they soon
turn darker. Food consists of live paramecium, daphnia, brine shrimps, tubifex and
bloodworm later turning to Asellus, tiny strips of raw beef, chopped earthworm and
inevitably small waxworm! Mandarin salamander larvae are notoriously slow developers
taking between 110 - 150 days to metamorphose. During the later part of development the
bony ridges and colours begin to become obvious although vivid coloration will not develop
until they are six months old. On metamorphosing they measure approximately 1.9 - 2.5
inches (4.83 - 6.35cm) and must be given easily egressable sections of land. Most emerge
with remnants of their gills and can be moved to plastic containers of damp Java or
sphagnum moss where they will feed greedily on waxworm. Maturity is attained in the second
or third year.
In line with most caudates, mandarin salamanders are relatively resistant to disease.
However there are two ailments which occasionally crop up which must be treated in the
early stages. Needless to say not only should infected animals be isolated but also the
aquarium from where they are taken should be thoroughly disinfected.
Swelling of the digits commonly known as 'bumblefoot'.
Caused by an undescribed bacterium (probably Pseudomonas) which
affects the digits and limbs of mandarin salamanders, these swell to an excessive degree
causing much discomfort and eventually the affected area will either split or drop off. If
treated with a tropical fish compound such as BSB (Broad Spectrum Bactericide) such as
that produced by TAP (Technical Aquatic Products), the condition can be arrested and
reversed. Place three drops of the BSB in a pint of water and bath the infected salamander
in this for ten minutes twice daily.
Mouth Rot & Skin Rot
Necromatic tissue is commonly seen around the jaws
Almost certainly caused by the either the bacterium Flexibacter
coulmnaris, Aeromonas hydrophilia or Pseudomonas vectors, this disease is seen
in the form of mouth erosion (especially the lower jaw) but can also spread to the ventral
surface, cloaca and underside of the limbs where large open sores are prevalent. Continual
treatment by bathing the infected specimen twice daily for 5 - 10 minutes in a strong
solution of the Finrot/Mouthrot compounds frequently sold for tropical fish. 5 drops in a
pint of water should suffice. I have found that the Interpet and Waterlife compounds are
excellent in this respect. Once the disease clears up, treatment should continue for a
further four weeks to prevent reoccurrence.
Necromatic tissue can prove fatal around the limbs and cloaca
Badly infected specimens may require a course of topical or
injected antibiotics such as a 2.5% or 5% solution of Ticarcillin, Enrofloxacin or
Baytril. Unfortunately such antibiotics can only be acquired on prescription (at least
this is the case in England) and are extremely expensive.
If correctly treated Mandarin salamanders will not only survive such disease but will show
complete recovery with entire limbs or a new jaw being regenerated. However it is cannot
be stressed how important it is to treat such diseases early. Sometimes it is better to
euthenase particularly badly infected specimens which have lost most of the head, torso or
The charming but ultimately endangered Black Crocodile newt
I have recently acquired a number of very
rare but very beautiful black crocodile salamanders (Tylotriton taliangensis) which
where actually saved from a Chinese food market in the town of Luizho, eastern China.
Occurring in a small area of the southwest mountainous subregion of the western
Himalaya's, China, this species is far more streamlined and aquatic and proves to be an
extremely 'friendly' species in captivity. Unfortunately it is also near extinction and I
would only recommend experienced keepers to attempt this newt as it will not tolerate
temperatures above 60°F.. Attaining 7.5 inches (19.05cm), its dorsum is a inky black with
bright orange markings present on the parotid glands, digits and lower tail. I keep my
specimens in a very cool aquaterrarium complete with slow-running water (to which I add a
12cm diameter cube of iced rainwater on a daily basis) and a mossy platform with cork bark
hides. I have seen my specimens in a Pleurodeles-like amplexus on several occasions but I
know my females are not yet properly conditioned (watch this space for details of eggs and
larvae as and when they arrive!). Whenever I walk into the room, one or more specimens
will poke their heads out expecting a morsel (which they usually get in the form of
waxworm, slugs and earthworm.). All in all, a charming, but alas difficult species (unless
temperatures can be kept low).
So far I have I have not kept any other species of genera Tylototriton or Echinotriton.
However, future trips to Chinese food markets in the next year or so may provide me with
Studies on Chinese Salamanders (Zhao/Hu/Jiang/Yang) SSAR
Amphibians in Captivity (Marc Staniszewski) TFH Publications 1995
A Field Guide to the World's Newts & Salamanders (Marc Staniszewski) - I am currently
working on this volume for a US Publishers
All text and photo's - Copyright ©1996-99 Marc Staniszewski
Most recent revision: 30/09/98
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