A Beginner’s Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians

a beginner’s guide to reptiles and amphibians

Introduction 

Reptiles and amphibians are often confused for each other as the majority of people are not one hundred percent sure what the differences between them are, even if they won’t admit it. 

If you are looking for a new pet to bring home, then we would advise doing your research so that you can choose the best companion for you and your lifestyle. Luckily, we are here to help. That is why we have put together this beginner’s guide to reptiles and amphibians! 

This article will cover everything you need to know about reptiles and amphibians, from the similarities and differences they share to which animals are the best option for new pet owners. Plus, you can learn more about how to prepare and care for your lizard or reptile.

So, are you ready to find out what you can about reptiles and amphibians? Let’s get started! 

bunch of reptiles and amphibians

What is the Difference Between Reptiles and Amphibians?

A cobra and a frog

This first section will take a look at some of the ways in which reptiles and amphibians are similar as well as what differences they have and how this sets them apart from each other. 

Reptiles and Amphibians Share Some Similarities 

Species that belong to either the reptile or amphibian family can share some similarities which often leads to some confusion about which species belong to what class of animals. 

Briefly, here are some commonly known animals and what they are classed as: 

Reptiles – 

  • Snakes
  • Turtles
  • Lizards

Amphibians – 

  • Toads
  • Frogs
  • Salamanders 

For some time, “reptiles and amphibians were zoologically classified as a single group due to some of their similarities and shared characteristics”, according to Rutgers, so it is no surprise that there are still some people who are unable to tell the differences between them. 

This brand of zoology was known as Herpetology and included the study of reptiles (such as turtles, tortoises, snakes, lizards, crocodilians, and tuataras) and amphibians (such as frogs, toads, caecilians, salamanders, and newts). It was named after the way many of these creatures crawl along the ground as it stems from the Greek “herpes” which means to crawl. 

The Difference Between Reptiles and Amphibians is Their Relationship to Water

Amphibians need water in their habitat as they spend their life cycle in water, or so the Missouri Department of Conservation claims. The majority of amphibians are known to lay their eggs in the water, for example, so they would spend the first portion of life in the water. 

Reptiles, on the other hand, do not need to spend their life in water and can live nearby or spend small periods of time in the water without needing to rely on this wet environment.

Another difference between these two different species categories is their skin. Seeing as they are not water-based animals and often prefer warmer, dry climates, reptiles tend to have scaly skin as this helps them to survive in these environments. Amphibians are the opposite as they have much thinner, delicate skin that allows them to breathe underwater.

This is actually why reptiles can survive in saltwater environments whereas amphibians can’t, although we will speak about this in more detail a little later on in the article, thus a key reason for the differences between reptiles and amphibians is their relationship to water.

Facts About Reptiles and Amphibians

facts about reptiles and amphibians

Still want to know more about reptiles and amphibians? Well, this next section will have you feeling fully prepared to bring one home as a pet, or alternatively, to win your next pub quiz. Here are some of our favorite fun facts about reptiles and amphibians that we’ve compiled.

Reptiles 

Reptiles are a hugely popular pet in the US, and with so many different species, there’s lots to learn about them! For example, did you know that…

More Than 10,000 Species of Reptiles on the Planet 

See, we told you there were lots of different species of reptiles! The fact that there are over 10,000 types of reptiles (that we currently know about) is enough to blow any beginner’s mind. Not only that, but reptiles can be found all around the world except for Antarctica.

This makes reptiles one of the most diverse species on the planet, with only birds and fish coming close. Comparably, there are only around 7,000 species of amphibians in the world. 

Reptiles are Among the Longest Living Species on the Planet

Don’t believe us? Well, the first proof of reptile existence was discovered 315 million years ago after fossil markings were found, so they have clearly been around for a very long time.

Depending on the species, reptiles can also have a pretty long lifespan. Take the Aldabra tortoise, for example, a species that can live for up to and even over a lengthy 150 years! Again, it depends on the type of reptile, but this is one reason why they can make good pets.

With that said, there are some reptiles that have much shorter life expectancies, so it is always important that you do your research to find out how long you will be required to care for your new reptile pet after first buying them. Pets are not just for Christmas, remember!   

Reptiles are Ectothermic – They Get Their Body Heat From External Sources

Both reptiles and amphibians are ectotherms which means that they control their body temperature through relying on the environment that is around them and adjusting to it. 

Reptiles do this in a way that is pretty similar to what us humans do depending on the weather – when reptiles are feeling cold, they will often seek heat and try to bask in the sun somewhere, and when they are feeling too warm, they cool down in the shade or cold water. 

It is therefore important to make sure that their enclosures are suitable for their heat needs. 

Amphibians

Amphibians are equally as popular and they can be pretty interesting animals as well! So, here are some of the fun facts that we have collected about this particular species category.

Most Amphibians Have Thin, Moist Skin That Helps Them to Breathe 

Because they spend a good portion of their life cycle in or around water, most amphibians have porous skin that allows them to breathe underwater. Although this is obviously a good thing, it also means that certain toxins are able to penetrate the skin which can be harmful.

On the other hand, some amphibians carry the toxic substances around on their skin in order to keep themselves safe in a world filled with other animals that are bigger than they are.

According to the National Geographic, “the most toxic amphibians are also the most brightly colored” which is to warn off other predators. For example, poison dart frogs will carry Curare [pronounced like ‘kyoo-RAW-ree’] on their colorful skin to injure any type of attacker.

Frogs Swallow Their Food Whole and Cannot Live in Saltwater

Another thing that you might find interesting is that some amphibians, like frogs, can swallow their prey whole. This is because they do not have the same ability to chew their food in the way that reptiles and mammals do, as amphibians only have a few “vomerine teeth”. 

Instead, most amphibians make use of their long, sticky tongues which can be flicked out and snapped back at seriously impressive speeds to snag something for themselves to eat. 

Another interesting fact about amphibians is that they can only live in freshwater environments and cannot survive in saltwater. This is due to their porous skin as although this allows them to breathe underwater, it is what makes saltwater an unsuitable habitat. 

Amphibians are Considered Vertebrates as They Have a Backbone

Just like fish, mammals, birds, and some species of reptile, amphibians have a backbone and are therefore considered vertebrates. Amphibians are actually among the first species with the ability to survive both on land and in water, so they can live in either environment. 

What is also interesting is that the smallest vertebrate animal on record is an amphibian. This record belongs to what is called the paedophryne amauensis frog which is 0.3 inches. 

Best Reptiles to Have as Pets For Beginners 

best reptiles to have as pets for beginners

Believe it or not, there are some breeds of reptiles that make better pets for beginners than others. This can be due to a variety of factors, such as dietary or environmental needs. This section will take a look at some of the best reptiles for beginners to own as pets and why. 

Turtles

Everybody knows what a turtle is – you’ve seen Finding Nemo at least, surely? – but one thing that not many people know is that you can keep turtles as a pet. Well, some turtles. One type that is especially suitable for beginners is an eastern box turtle. Here’s why!

Eastern Box Styles 

The reason why eastern box style turtles are so suitable for someone who is less experienced with the caring for and handling of reptiles is because they are pretty adaptable and versatile in terms of their care requirements, so this makes them easier to care for. 

The only slight drawback to owning an eastern box turtle as a pet is that they require a fair amount of space, but depending on the enclosure, they are able to live inside or outdoors. The main thing that matters is that they have a humid, moist environment with a shallow pool of water that they can dip in and out of – so make sure there is a bank for them to leave by. 

Another great thing about these turtles is that they are not aggressive, so with the “right gentle interactions and minimal handling, you can start to see their personality come out.” So, if you are looking for more than just a display pet, you should consider a turtle like this.

Snakes 

That’s right, there are plenty of people out there who are happy to have a pet snake living at home with them (provided they are in their own enclosure, of course), but which types of snakes would be the better choice for someone with minimal experience with reptile care?

Corn Snakes

They might not exactly be the most cuddly type of pet that you could own, but corn snakes are actually one of the most friendly snake species which makes them great for first time snake owners. They are also relatively inexpensive, which is a bonus, and easy to handle. 

Even experienced snake keepers love this breed of snake due to the selection of stunning skin colors and the patterns their scales produce. They are similar to rat snakes in a number of ways and are native to Southeastern America where they mostly survive on land. Like a lot of other breeds of snakes, corn snakes are most active at dusk and dawn, not in the day.  

Ball Pythons

Ball pythons are another option for beginners, but they do require a fair amount of research in order for you to be able to care for them properly in the way that they need. Like corn snakes, these are also considerably friendly in nature and can also be easy to handle.

These are a carnivorous breed that feeds on a diet of mainly shrews, rodents, and birds, and they are able to hunt their prey without using any venom. Instead, they simply restrict their prey after striking which kills them and makes it easier for them to consume their food. 

Lizards

Even if you are the ultimate beginner when it comes to knowing how to look after lizards, you’ll have probably heard of the iguana. Despite being one of the most well-known types of lizard, iguanas are actually not the best choice unless you have already had pet experience.

For a less aggressive breed with less specific dietary and environmental needs, check out these better-suited options for the beginner who would like to own a pet lizard.

Leopard Geckos

Plenty of people will have seen a gecko before, but leopard geckos are often thought of as the perfect pet for lizard lovers with limited pet experience. Thanks to their small size and relatively easy care needs, these animals make for a great first-time lizard companion. 

Another reason why leopard geckos are ideal is due to their affordability. As an adult, they will only require a 15 to 20-gallon tank and you will not need to feed them too frequently as they are able to survive on a diet that is made up of a selection of different insects and bugs. 

Not only this, but leopard geckos are great if you are looking for a pet that you will also be able to handle rather than a display pet who sits in their enclosure, loving life and looking pretty for the people who walk past or for those who come to visit you in your home.  

Bearded Dragon

Okay, so we have decided to include bearded dragons in this list of lizards that are suitable for beginners, but we should add that it comes with the caveat that these are probably more of a challenging pet compared to some of the other animals that we have suggested for you. 

However, the majority of what makes this breed slightly more difficult to care for is the equipment that you will need in order to look after them. As a fairly large type of lizard, the bearded dragon can grow to a size of around 18 to 24 inches when they reach adulthood. 

As a result, you will need a pretty big enclosure to contain them, so you should aim for a 50-gallon tank if you are considering a bearded dragon. They are also most used to a humid, desert climate so you will need to maintain a high temperature in their tank as well as making sure that your bearded dragon is getting enough UVA and UVB light exposure. 

Best Amphibians to Have as Pets For Beginners

best amphibians to have as pets for beginners

There are so many different types of amphibians that it can be difficult to decide which one will be the best sort of pet for you and your capabilities. Just like reptiles, it is important to find an amphibian that you will be able to adequately care for and look after at all times. 

Salamander

Salamanders are another well-known amphibian, but do you know enough about them to care for them as a pet? Let’s find out by looking at some suitable salamanders for beginners. 

Axolotl

These creatures may be a little bit funny to look at, but the axolati (also known as Ambystooma mexicanum) are also a bit of a phenomenon as their life cycle reaches adulthood without the need to metamorphosize from one stage to the next stage of life. 

Similar to the tiger salamander in a lot of ways, the axolotl salamander has been traced back to Mexico where it prefers to live in water environments like lakes. Unlike the tiger salamander, this is an amphibian that is capable of living in the water full time as they retain their tail. If you get an axolotl, you will certainly have the most interesting aquarium around! 

Frogs

Frogs aren’t just found at the bottom of the garden – they can actually make pretty great pets, especially if you are looking for an amphibian that is fit for a beginner. Here are some of the best types of frogs that you should consider if you are looking for a new amphibian. 

Pacman Frog

Yes, the arcade game did get its name from this frog. The pacman frog (Ceratophryidae) is a rather large frog that originates from Southern America, but despite growing to approximately 2.5 to 4 inches in length (for males) they are relatively low-maintenance. 

They are often bright and vibrant green in color with brown speckles on their skin. There are also albino pacman frogs which are typically a bright shade of yellow with orange speckling. These frogs only eat crickets twice a week or one full pinky mouse a week when grown.

Yellow and Black Dart Frog

Formally known as Dendrobates leucomelas and nicknamed the bumblebee or the yellow banded poison dart frog, these are also native to Southern America where they prefer to live in tropical rainforests and humid environments meaning they will need a warmer home. 

This is a great option if you are looking for a pet that you don’t mind being for display rather than play. Their bright colors are beautiful and they are surprisingly active for their size. They can grow to reach 1.2 to 2 inches in length with a typical lifespan of around 10 to 15 years.

The only thing we would say about these frogs is that although they look striking and like they would be pretty interesting, they are not the most active or interactive creatures which means that they are not really the best choice if you are hoping to handle your new pet. On the plus side, their inactivity means they do not require a large enclosure so 20 gallons is ok. 

Oriental Bellied Toad

Another stunning amphibian is the oriental bellied toad. As the name implies, the bellies of these amphibians are vividly colored which means that they can be easily identified by their green tops and sides and an underbelly that screams out in bright orange and yellow colors. 

The pattern that lies on top of these bright colors makes them even more interesting to look at, which perhaps makes up for their lack of size at only 2 inches when they are full grown. You will need to keep them in a humid, moist environment with a bank to leave the water. 

Red-Eyed Toad

Lastly, let’s take a look at the red-eyed toad, also known as Agalychnis callidryas. This is an arboreal amphibian that thrives in water, humid areas such as rainforests in Mexico, Central America, and Columbia. Like the other frogs we’ve looked at, they are brightly colored. 

You can spot a red-eyed toad by – you guessed it – their red eyes and brightly colored green skin that is accented by blue and yellow on their sides. In the center of their eyes you will see pupils that are quite narrow and vertical, so they are another animal that would make a great display pet. However, they also have a shorter expected lifespan of around five years. 

Even though they are brightly colored, the red-eyed toad is actually a non-venomous type of toad so you do not need to worry about accidentally poisoning yourself by touching one. With that being said, like a lot of frogs, they are not really suitable for excessive handling. 

Preparing For Your Reptile or Amphibian

preparing for your reptileamphibian

The most important thing you could possibly do to prepare for your reptile or amphibian is to make sure that you do your research, and seeing as you stumbled your way onto this article, we guess you have been! So, what else do you need to prepare yourself for? 

Reptile and Amphibian Enclosures Can Be Expensive 

When choosing an enclosure for your reptile or amphibian, you need to know what sort of size and shape your new pet will need. Some reptiles, like corn snakes, are known to be a breed that can be a bit of an escape artist at times and therefore will require an enclosure that has a tight-fitting lid so that your animal remains enclosed at all times without escaping. 

Also consider the following factors for your new pet enclosure: 

  • Draft proof 
  • Moisture resistant 
  • Heat resistant 
  • Well-lit 
  • As large as possible 

Some people might want to think about this before deciding on which amphibian or reptile to bring home, as enclosures can be expensive, especially if you choose a bigger pet. The larger your pet, the larger the enclosure will need to be, i.e. the more expensive it will be. 

Don’t assume that you can house multiple pets in one enclosure to cut down on costs. Not only do some reptiles and amphibians require a certain amount of space for themselves for their own comfort, but others will actually eat any cage mates that you try to pair them with.

What You Will Need

In addition to their enclosure, what else will your new reptile or amphibian pet need? Well, enclosure equipment and additional supplies can and should include the following things:

  • Thermometer
  • Vivarium
  • Basking lamps 
  • Ceramic heating elements
  • Under tank heaters 
  • Hot rocks 
  • Incandescent bulbs
  • Fluorescent bulbs 
  • Reptile cage carpets or reptile sand 
  • Cage decor 
  • Anti-bacterial or fungal solutions and water solutions 
  • License (more information is given on this shortly) 

Okay, that last one isn’t essential as such, but think how much nicer it will be for your new pet if they come home to at least one or two bits of fancy cage decor to welcome them.

You will also need to think about what sort of food you will need to feed your new pet. 

Obtaining a License 

If you didn’t already know, before you purchase any type of reptile or amphibian to keep as a pet, you will first need to check whether or not this is allowed and what license you will need. Otherwise, you could face consequences for buying and keeping reptiles or amphibians.

To Own Some Amphibians or Reptiles You Will Need to Obtain a License From the Government

This will depend on the type of reptile or amphibian that you are interested in, but in some cases, you will be required to obtain an official license from your government body. 

Licenses are usually around $10 annually and there are different types of licenses available depending on whether you will be simply owning one of these animals or if you are planning to breed, sell, offer for sale, trade, or barter for the ownership of reptiles or amphibians. 

In order to obtain a license, the government will need to be “satisfied that the issuance of the permit will not be detrimental to the protection and conservation of native reptiles or amphibians”, according to a Maryland government report on reptile and amphibian licenses.

You Can Only Own Species That Are Native to Your Own Country

Despite there being a black-market exotic animals trade that operates outside the confines of the law, you are legally only ever allowed to own species that are native to your country. Again, this is to reduce the risk of pests becoming a threat to the existing species there. 

This means that there are certain species which are illegal to keep in your country. There are still ways to buy them, but this is actually seriously contributing to many species’ extinction. 

Regrettably, a lot of the reptiles and amphibians that people attempt to buy and sell through this illegal form of exotic animal trading will become ill and die due to improper care. 

Some of the reptiles that are considered illegal to keep in the US include: 

  • Vipers
  • Cobras
  • Anacondas
  • Crocodilians such as caimans, alligators, and crocodiles
  • Small turtles (shells smaller than four inches) 

Some of the amphibians that are considered illegal to keep in the US include: 

  • Any non-native salamanders 
  • Boreal toad 
  • African clawed frogs 
  • Genus ambystoma 

Furthermore, even if the reptile or amphibian you are looking to get is native to your country, you will also need to check that it is not considered endangered as there are many species that are considered illegal to own due to a rapidly decreasing total population of them. These regulations can vary by state, so always remember to check what is and is not allowed.

Summary 

Man buying a reptile on a pet store

We hope that by reading this article you have learned more than you ever thought possible about a few different types of reptiles and amphibians! Just remember to make sure that you do extra research on the specific reptile or amphibian that you are thinking about getting. 

This way, you will know exactly how to care for your pets individual needs and requirements! After that, you will simply need to go and choose your new pet companion…  good luck!