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Getting Acquainted with Amphibians

Collectively, reptiles and amphibians are referred to as herps. That term comes from the Greek word herpes, which literally means crawling things. The term is applied equally to reptiles and amphibians. From herp comes herpetology, the study of crawling things. A person with formal training in herpetology is a herpetologist. Someone who likes herps, keeps them, and works with them but lacks the formal training is a herper.

If you like damp environments (or if you want a pet who likes things wet), then an amphibian is right for you. Because they breathe partially through their skin, amphibians must have moist, clean caging, which requires careful monitoring and frequent cleaning to avoid ammonia buildup or a bacterial bloom. Otherwise, your pet dies a nasty death.

The following list explains some factors to consider if you want a pet amphibian:

    Caging. Amphibians need caging that can hold moisture but also can be easily cleaned. In most cases, this means an aquarium, usually a 15- to 20-gallon size. Moisture is provided through water (the tank itself or a container within it is filled with water), or the substrate in the tank (sphagnum moss or dampened paper towels) is moistened. You can supply additional moisture with a hand-held sprayer or a misting system.
    You'll want to add a screen top to the terrarium/aquarium, but you don't need to worry about adding lighting or keeping the tank or its inhabitants warm. Amphibians like it cool; the tiger salamanders, for instance, trudge through snow as early as February to reach the ponds where they hope to meet a mate, which says something about amphibians' tolerance of cold temperatures and their sex drive.
    Because amphibians are quiet creatures, they won't tear up an elaborately planted terrarium the way a lizard or snake might. The smaller amphibians, like the brightly colored dart frogs, look like animated jewels in a fern- and moss-bedecked tank.
    Cleaning an amphibian tank is an important aspect of keeping these creatures alive. The smaller the amphibian, the less waste it produces, and the less work it is to maintain the tank. You have to tear down and reconstruct a 20-gallon dart frog enclosure maybe twice a year (although the water dish will need to be cleaned daily). In contrast, a bullfrog's enclosure needs daily water changes or filtration and twice-a-week partial water changes, and the moist sphagnum in a tiger salamander's cage needs rinsing at least every other day.
    Feeding: Amphibians eat insects, small fish, and earthworms. All are readily purchased from bait stores or pet stores; the insects and earthworms can be mail-ordered. Crickets need to be housed in an extra aquarium. You can toss a few into each amphibian's cage as needed. Mealworms come packaged in a plastic container with a snap-on lid; store them in your refrigerator or move them to their own hideaway filled with oat bran and rolled oats — at last there's a way to use up that oatmeal! — with a few slices of apple for moisture. You can buy earthworms in lots of 500 from a hunting/fishing supply firm and store them in a refrigerator.
    Size: Amphibians that are generally seen in pet stores are usually beautifully colored and fairly small. You can certainly go out and find big amphibians. Some of the aquatic caecilians, for example, will easily reach a 2-foot length, but few people want a retiring pet with the animation and appearance of a gray rubber hose.
    The pet store amphibians range in size from the fist-sized horned frog to the 3-inch-long red-spotted newt to the thumbnail-sized dart frog. You can certainly find more exotic amphibians. Your store can order them for you, or you may want to see what an expo can offer. Their easy-to-handle sizes mean the animals require less food. Amphibians don't require the amount of food that a larger, more active creature, such as a green iguana, needs.
    Cost: Amphibians are inexpensive. The dart frogs as a group run about $40 to $60 each, but this is at the high end for all amphibians. The more unusual horned or tomato frogs cost around $50, but the majority of amphibians range from $15 to $20 each.

Amphibians breathe, to a lesser or greater degree, through their skin. This is why they need moist, very clean caging, why the cages must be cleaned so frequently, and why you must wash your hands before handling them. Most skin diseases in amphibians are fatal.

As a rule, amphibians are retiring and nocturnal, which means they aren't as responsive to a human as is a tortoise. Amphibians tend to lay massive numbers of eggs; if you plan to breed your amphibian, you'll need to plan how you'll raise up to a thousand young, or you'll need to dispose of the excess eggs.

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