Attack of the Giant Frogs
Giant frogs are not for everyone-but it would be a mistake not to carry these fascinating behemoths of the herp world.
When I was 12 years old, an older cousin gave me a bona-fide classic. Living Amphibians of the World was a coffee table book, lavishly illustrated and well written. It introduced me to the entire Living series, but it remains my favorite to this day. I spent hours pouring over the whole thing, but I always came back to one particular page. About midway through, there is a picture of a frog so startling, so impossibly dramatic, so unfroglike, it haunted my imagination for years. It is a Budgett’s frog, rearing up in full defensive posture and looking every bit like its enormous prehistoric forbearer—the six-foot giant from the swamps of prehistory, the Eryops.
The picture is breathtaking. It is one of a few pictures from my boyhood of which I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, I’ll never live to see that!” And yet, here it is half a century later, and I see them often, and captive bred at that. My, how the world has changed.
The Budgett’s frog (Lepidobatrachus laevis) is an aquatic frog whose blob-like appearance, large size (four or five inches) and protruding eyes give it a surprisingly cute and almost comical appearance. But, when frightened, it can rise up, gape open its enormous mouth and emit a high-pitched scream that truly will give one pause.
Budgett’s frogs do well in a shallow aquatic tank with moderate temperatures and a diet of small fish, crickets and the like. Their coloring is generally drab olive or gray, but close inspection—particularly of younger specimens—will sometimes reveal subtle lace-like patterns of pastel green and yellow. They are one of several remarkable giant frogs that are currently fairly easily available to the pet trade as captive-produced babies, and you would be remiss to have a section of live herps and not include these inexpensive, easy-to-house, low-maintenance and altogether winning creatures.
Probably the most common of the giants is the Argentine horned frog (Ceratophrys ornata), a more terrestrial species that also benefits from having vivid and ornate bars and spots of black, lime green and brown. Some even have streaks of red. They are eating machines, thus garnering them the common name of Pac-Man frog—the name also reveals how long these have been a commanding presence in the pet industry, as the name long surpasses the popularity of the game. The horned frog, especially as a baby, is a ferocious eater. I have often delighted children by coercing five little frogs to try to eat five of my fingers, waving them about as each continues with ferocity and outlandish delusions of grandeur to try to devour me, finger first.
Just because they constantly want to feed does not mean that they should. The automatic feeding response is probably a biological mechanism brought on by an environment with a relative paucity of food. Many pet owners are so delighted by this behavior that they feed the little guys into an early grave. I recommend feeding even the babies no more than a few times a week.
Like Budgett’s frogs, these too get about four to five inches long—imagine a flattened out baseball—but their sedentary lifestyle means that even a big one would do well in a five- or 10-gallon tank. Provide a shallow water bowl, moist moss and humus substrate, a mild heat source, and this frog is set. Caution: because these frogs’ feeding response is movement-based, they must be kept in solitary. One of my very early husbandry mistakes was to keep a sexed pair in a single tank. They were named Buffy and Jody. One day, I came home to find that Buffy had done the seemingly impossible. She had consumed her nearly equally sized roommate.
There are other species of horned frog in the pet trade. The Chaco horned frog (Ceratophrys cranwelli) is very close to the Argentine, except in color, with the green substituted for tan and orange. Occasionally, one will find the Surinam horned frog (C. cornuta) available, as well. These are slightly larger frogs with much more distinctive “horns” and vivid coloring. Unfortunately, I have found that, if wild caught, they are much tougher to keep. In the wild, they typically consume other frogs, and they are difficult to transition to fish and mice. Many breeders have integrated Argentines and Surinams, and the result tends to have the vivid coloring without the feeding difficulties. Breeders have also produced some spectacular albino variations.
Tipping the Scales
Of all the commonly captive produced jumbo frogs, none is, to my eye, more impressive or fascinating than the ironically monikered pyxie frog, aka burrowing bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersus). This true giant can get nearly 10 inches long and weigh more than four pounds. It is the second largest frog, bested only by the Central African goliath frog. This is a grassland and scrub frog with many interesting adaptations to life in such a seemingly harsh environment for frogs.
They survive extended dry seasons that would kill any other frog by estivating—the summertime equivalent to hibernating. They use their powerful hind legs to burrow deep underground, where they exude slime that hardens into a cocoon-like enclosure, holding in moisture. This is augmented by an extended bladder that allows them to retain generous amounts of water, so much so that the local Bushmen will sometimes dig up the frogs to use as living canteens.
One aspect of their estavation habits makes pyxies something of an ideal pet for the family that likes to travel. Going away for a few weeks? Put your frog in his tank with some dry moss, put the tank in the closet and leave. Upon your return, simply rewet your frog, and like those “magic crystals” many of us had as kids, watch him come back to life. Can a pet get more convenient?
Pyxies are also exceptional in the amphibian world for their parenting skills. While most frogs are absolutely devoid of parental love, often going as far as to cannibalize their offspring, pyxies are excellent fathers. They steadfastly guard their egg masses against all comers. When the tadpoles emerge, they are biochemically triggered to recognize their particular father frog, and they stay close by his side. I have seen footage of pyxies driving off drinking lions who happen to venture too close to their brood.
As pets, the giant frogs are glaring, motionless brutes. Now, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but for some folks that’s just what the doctor ordered. As adults, they are low maintenance, great conversation-starters and quiet—the ultimate pet for people on the go.
One word of caution: All these frogs can deliver quite a bite. The horned frogs have tiny but very sharp teeth and strong jaws. Adults can easily draw blood. Both the Budgett’s and pyxies have sharp fang-like structures in their mouths. I was once bitten by a pyxie whose “fang” went straight through my thumbnail. That was an abject lesson in respect for these little giants of the terrarium.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.