The Fire-Bellied Frog


As each day passes, it seems that our industry becomes further restricted in the availability of livestock, for reasons both legal and ecological. The days of vast wildlife importation seem permanently behind us, and while it saddens me that the natural world is under such incredible assault from our species, I’m glad that most of our stock is captive-bred. This is true of both the most exotic and elite animals we handle as well as the bread-and-butter stock. It seems inevitable that the future will see all exotic pets under the purview of domestic propagation.


Even the Fire-bellied Frog (Bombina orientalis).


This export from the rice paddies of Hong Kong (and other Southeast Asian lowlands, from Korea through parts of Russia) has been a mainstay of the hobby for more than 40 years, to the point where we don’t pay any serious attention to them. We should, and in this column, we will.


First of all, let’s clear up the name. Most people falsely refer to them as Fire-bellied Toads. This is wrong, so break yourself of the habit now. They are so-called because they possess bumpy tubercles on their skin, but even budding herpetologists will tell you that is not the "tell" in determining a frog from a toad. The only defining physical characteristic of toads that separates them from frogs is the presence of the paratoid gland, a raised bump located behind each eye. They are the toad’s major centers of toxin production, and no frog has them.


The Fire-belly is a colorful, 2-in. long frog with a bright orange to deep red ventral surface and a dorsal side that can range from forest green to olive, or even tan, brown or bronze in parts of its range, often featuring one or two "butterfly" marks on their backs. The entire frog is deeply speckled in black. As is typical of shallow water frogs, their eyes bug comically out from the tops of their heads.


One might think that the upper color acts as camouflage, and that’s certainly true. When I was young, I assumed the "stop sign" bottom was a warning to submerged predators below. I was only half right. When these frogs are truly attacked, they perform the "unken reflex" ("unken" being German for "Fire-bellied Frog!"), a behavior seen in other species with a similar underside. They will arch their backs, raising their head, arms and legs, and showing off the bright warning colors. To be honest, I have NEVER seen one do this in captivity, but hey, I have never tried to stress out my frogs!


They are remarkably hardy, seemingly resistant to many of the diseases I see plaguing other amphibia, and adaptable to a wide variety of room temperatures. Most keepers assume a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, though I have had them for nearly 20 without deaths, and I have a friend who had an individual that lived well over 20.


They are simple to set up. A 10-gallon tank will accommodate four or five frogs without a problem. I always give them about 1/3 of the tank as a land section and an interior background up which they might climb. Approximately 2/3 of the tank should be shallow water, where they will spend most of their days. Some aquatic plants will be appreciated. As they eat small arthropods almost exclusively in the wild, I recommend medium-sized crickets as a staple, abetted by other soft-bodied insects. I have also seen them take guppies or even dive into a writhing mass of tubifex worms. I have noticed that these frogs tend to drop weight very quickly if they are underfed. I like to joke that they have black holes at the core of their beings, as they seem to be able to feed endlessly. I would feed Fire-bellies at least every other day, and more commonly once or twice a day.


Of course, the crickets should always be dusted in vitamins and calcium. Here’s a hint: as a dusted cricket seems to die almost instantaneously when it hits the drink, always drop the crickets onto the land portion. The Fire-bellies are such aggressive little feeders that few—if any—will make it to the water.


I have not personally bred these frogs, but I know quite a few people who have, and the key seems to be having a large communal group and a bigger tank, with the few inches of shallow water graduating to 6 to 8 in., which seems to be their preferred depth to spawn. Males are distinguishable from females by having thicker forearms and more prominent webbing.


I have now mentioned a few times that I keep Fire-bellies in groups. They’re a relatively inexpensive frog in general, so I offer my customers healthy discounts on buying multiple animals. They cohabitate well, and there are two specific, wonderful side benefits to have a group. Firstly, the males are constantly calling. While this would be loud and obtrusive in most frogs, the cry is soft and pleasant with Fire-bellies. A group of them will sound like a pack of small dogs a block or two down the street. It will lull you to sleep at night in the most beautiful way!


Secondly, they are such little monsters for food that, in a group, they will resemble a battle royale of professional wrestlers at feeding time. They will grab each other, flip, roll and generally carry on without ever actually harming one another.


Generally, I am a one species to a tank kind of guy, but Fire-bellies are a rare exception. Because they are diurnal and spend the vast majority of their time floating in the water, I have run the experiment of keeping them with green and grey tree frogs (Hyla cinerea and Hyla versicolor), which are nocturnal and spend their days asleep at the very top of the tank. This requires a few adjustments—a morning and evening feed, for instance—but I kept these together for many years with no issue. While I would never make a blanket guarantee to your customers that this will work, I would assure them that if any animals might work in a community tank, these are solid bets.


Because they are generally regarded as a "starter" frog, the Fire-bellies remain under appreciated in the hobby. Here we have an animal that is beautiful, durable, versatile and fascinating to watch. Add in that they are easy to keep and inexpensive, and we have the sort of animal that should be de rigueur in every one of our shops.  PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.