Amazing Amphibians
by Owen Maercks
December 31, 2011
Frogs, newts and toads can make for the perfect first pet and are often the first animals that herptile hobbyists bring home from the pet shop



A family came into the store recently with their five year old, who wanted a frog. It immediately took me back 50 years to my own desire for a frog or maybe a salamander.

There is something entirely enchanting about amphibians. They are infinitely patient and stoic. They seem to bear the wisdom and outlook of Buddha. They are beautiful, with no apparent purpose to the beauty. They are predators, but seem to have none of the bearing as such. Their occasional bursts of speed are punctuated by endless bouts of motionlessness, with an occasional lazy saunter across the cage. They are enigmas.

Amazingly, even very young kids seem to get this. On the other hand, there are some drawbacks to owning amphibians as pets. Firstly, they are barely handle-able. All of them carry toxins to one degree or another in their skin, and while none of those toxins can penetrate our skin, they can linger on human hands. A child who doesn’t wash after handling an amphibian might, even an hour later, put his finger in his mouth or rub his eyes and be in for a very unpleasant surprise. Amphibian skins also often react poorly to the oils on our hands, making holding a frog a double whammy for the holder and the animal being held.

Secondly, most amphibians are nocturnal and fossorial, meaning that they spend much of their time hiding or asleep—not exactly what a five year old seeks in a pet. Thirdly, most amphibians are movement feeders, meaning they key into prey by motion. The idea of keeping live crickets around to feed a pet is often a difficult hurdle for parents.


Five-and-Dime Assortment
The employee who maintains my store’s amphibian section will often buttonhole me as I am about to go to the wholesalers’ warehouse and ask me to get what he calls the “Woolworth’s order.” That’s our shorthand for the range of amphibians that the famed five-and-dime retailer was famous for stocking when we were kids: inexpensive aquatic frogs and salamanders, as well as hermit crabs and the like. These are the animals that, more often than not, bring kids into the hobby.

In my own case, I had a 10-gallon tropical fish tank, and I liked the fish just fine (especially my talking catfish); but for me it was all about the fire-bellied newts (Cynops orientalis). They fascinated me endlessly, gliding about the tank, tranquil but inquisitive. It turns out there is more than one species available of Asian newts with the bright red bellies. The standard, from Hong Kong and China, stays less than five inches in length and fares well with most tropical fish. There are also larger species (up to eight inches), the smooth newt and the paddle-tailed newt, which will put not only small fish, but even the standard Chinese newt at risk. They should not be mixed in together.

The other commonly available, although seasonal, aquatic newt is our own Eastern Newt (Nothophthalmus viridescens), an eastern U.S. native with a beautiful olive green color offset with tiny specks of black and red dots circled in black. They, too, will fare well in a tropical fish tank. While all these newts are considered to be aquatic, it is advisable to give them some access to dry land, such as a floating bit of wood or an “island.”

Most people use one of the commonly offered mini-pellet diets, although retailers may want to recommend that customers feed at least some fresh live food, such as tubifex worms. Always remember that a customer wedded to live food is a customer wedded to making regular stops at your store. This is a side benefit for giving your customer the right information about the pet’s care.

Small aquatic frogs are also readily available on the market. The tiny dwarf clawed frog (Hymenochirus boettgeri) is tiny and only lives for a few years, but it is cute and kids love them. (Its larger cousin is illegal in some states.)

Albinos have recently become available, the benefit being that they are more easily detectable in the tank. There is also the popcorn frog or the floating frog (Occidozyga lima), which is a little frog that keeps its eyes above the water and feeds readily on baby crickets or fruit flies.


Starter Frog
The fire-bellied frog (Bombina orientalis) is an inexpensive and semi-aquatic frog that also stands out as an excellent introductory frog. Fire-bellied frogs, often incorrectly referred to as toads, are long-lived, sturdy and beautiful. They frequent rice paddies, so their setup might include a shallow water area (often a large low bowl will do) but they also need substantial terrestrial sections. They are active insectivores, and I like keeping them in small groups of five to seven frogs. When the food is introduced, they wrestle, tumble and clamber all over each other, providing an amusing little frenzy without ever doing any harm to each other. The group of them will also produce an adorable little barking noise that sounds distinctly like a pack of dogs a block away.

Of course, some kids won’t be satisfied with a fish or even a semi-aquatic tank. They want a terrestrial amphibian, preferably one they can at least hold a bit. There are a few frogs and many toads that might fit the bill.

The Australian White’s tree frog (Litorea caerulea) is such a choice. These are large, robust frogs that do not tend to jump and thus handle fairly well for short periods. Ozzies often call them dumpy frogs, and indeed, as they age they develop fatty folds of skin that give them a comical and bloated appearance. They prefer a warmer tank (75 to 85 degrees) and do well feeding on crickets but also enjoy the occasional baby mouse. In fact, I have had many that could be convinced to eat simply by touching a mouse to their noses, as they slept. They would never even bother to wake up.


And Toads, Too
We have many species of toad (Bufo spp.) in the pet trade, and most of them require the same basic care and are sturdy and charming terrarium inhabitants. Toads are distinguishable from frogs by the presence of paratoid glands, the large wart-like bumps situated directly behind each eye. These are their primary poison glands. If they secrete a milky substance while being handled, the handler should take extra care in washing up. They also often urinate when first picked up, but the urine is primarily water and should be of little concern.

Toads are nocturnal, but the introduction of food will certainly rouse them from their slumbers, even midday. An animal that has, in Western literature, often been synonymous with ugliness, toads are in fact quite lovely, with particularly vivid irises.

So, what of the family that came in looking for a frog? They left with a Rosy Boa and setup—never assume where a sale will go. On the other hand, always remember that the most rabid hobbyists in our field often start their hobby with the most humble of amphibians. They are nurturing a hobby. By taking them seriously, you are nurturing a customer base.


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.