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Caring for frogs

Many people get frustrated with their green algae-filled aquariums. What they need is a terrarium with some dart frogs instead of fish. There's no pumps, no heaters, no filters, and no green water. Dart frogs are surprisingly easy to keep.  They are diurnal which means they are active during the day and they do best at room temperature (anywhere in the 70s. Dropping into the 60s at night is fine. Just don't let the terrarium lights heat the tank to more than 80). They also have amazing social and breeding behaviors so they make fascinating additions to a terrarium.  They come in a wide variety of sizes and colors and they are very safe.  While it’s true that some Indian tribes used a few species of dart frog as a source of poison, the vast majority of species are not nearly as toxic.  In fact, when raised in captivity they are not toxic at all because they obtain their poisons from insects in their native habitat.

Here's some pictures of the 59 gallon terrarium I have in my office at work. There used to be three pairs of leucomelas living here. Now I have a pair of D. tinctorius "Matecho" in there. The tank has Riccia on the ground, on the waterfall, and floating in the water. There's also some ferns and the large green plants are Anubias barteri var. nana. I sell a few plant cuttings from my terrariums on the supplies page. However, I almost never have java moss or Riccia. Try your local pet store or aquabid.com for those.

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The simplest terrarium. The simplest terrariums are just a 10 gallon fish tank with a wet paper towel in the bottom (always include something for them to hide in like film canisters or cocohut). These are actually a very safe way to keep frogs. The paper towel will need changed often. Simple substrates that last longer are sphagnum moss, peat moss, or cocofiber. Cocofiber and sphagnum moss are available on my supplies page. Adding drainage is always good. This basically means putting some pea gravel from the hardware store as a bottom layer. Then put the cocofiber and/or sphagnum moss on top. Several pieces of driftwood and a cocohut round out the decorations. I put Java moss or Riccia on the substrate. I get java moss and Riccia from my fish tanks. Java moss grows really well and spreads all over everything, but can grow too tall unless there are some frogs trampling it down. Riccia is great no matter what, but is much more sensitive. For some reason, Riccia does much better with frogs on it. If you remove the frogs from the tank, the Riccia can mold over within a few days! I also like using live sphagnum moss. Sometimes the dry sphagnum moss you use for the substrate will sprout and the plant is actually a very nice bottom cover. The tank will need hand-misted once every day or two. A top from the pet store will work but they usually don't fit well. They have a plastic strip in the back that lets moisture and fruit flies out (and maybe frogs!). This can be taped off with duct tape to seal it. If you're handy at cutting glass, it's best to make your own top that fits perfectly, like the one shown below. Ace Hardware will cut the glass for you (places like Lowe's and Home Depot are horrible for glass). Ace also sells the type called "Double Strength" which fits aquarium hinges perfectly. The hinge material and handle can be purchased here. I use the hinge but not the aquarium handles. Instead, I prefer to use a cabinet handle from a hardware store and silicon it to the top, as shown below. The advantage of this is that there is no gap created between the top and the tank which is what happens when you use an aquarium handle. 

Here are some very simple 2.5g tanks I use for baby frogs. I have a 4 foot rack that holds 56 of them. I just put an inch or two of cocofiber on the bottom and Riccia on top of that. You can see that the top part of the Riccia dried out and died but the bottom part is starting to spread where it is touching the substrate. You have to mist Riccia every day while it is in this stage. Once it fills in it doesn't need misted as often and becomes very hardy. I have put some pictures of mature Riccia with baby frogs on it below.


Feeding your frogs. Frogs eat wingless fruit flies. Actually fish love these too. The wingless part makes this extremely simple. Put some Repashy vitamin dust into a plastic cup. Shake some flies into the cup and shake the cup a little. Your flies are now dusted and ready to shake into your terrariums. You can dust pinhead crickets in the same way. These are a great food as well, but a little more difficult to raise on your own. You should feed young frogs daily. Adult frogs can skip a day or a weekend without a problem. 

Making new cultures. Once a week you'll need to start a new fruit fly culture. This takes five minutes. Put some dry medium into a plastic container (1/3 cup), add water (1/2 cup), and shake it a little to mix it up. Wait a couple minutes for it to solidify, sprinkle a tiny amount of activated yeast on top, and then crumple up a paper towel and throw it on top (or a coffee filter). Then pour some flies in (100 to 300) and shut the lid. In 10 to 14 days this culture will have hundreds of new flies. The culture will continue producing for another week or two, but it's good to start new cultures every week.

Note: The activated yeast on top is absolutely crucial. Without this the culture will grow mold instead of fruit flies. I think the most common reason that cultures fail is that the activated yeast was forgotten, or it had gone bad (activated yeast is alive and it can die after you open the packet). Since I have so many frogs to feed I cannot afford to lose a batch of cultures. To be safe I always buy fresh activated yeast of two different brands and add some of each to every new culture.

Making new medium. You can buy culture medium from Repashy. You can also make your own. The standard recipe is three 2 lb boxes of potato flakes (instant mashed potatoes from the grocery store), 12 cups sugar, and 1.5 cups of brewer's yeast. The brewer's yeast is dead and is just a cheap protein source. My ultimate favorite recipe is the standard recipe with 5 cups of Repashy medium added to it.

Where to get stuff.

Fruit fly containers, 32 ounce, superiorshippingsupplies.com

Brewer's yeast (or nutrient yeast), try amazon.com or a local feed store.

Repashy Calcium plus insect dusting powder from Repashy

Repashy SuperFly fruit fly medium from Repashy

Fancier substrate. Ignore the fancy backgrounds in these pictures. You don't need them and I show you how to make those at the bottom of this page. Plus, there's no need to make them anymore because Zoo-med came out with some really nice cork backgrounds. For now, just look at the substrate. A layer of pea gravel from a garden store or clay balls from a hydroponics store can be used as the very bottom layer. Then you place a piece of fiberglass screen over the top (or skip it), then put something that will hold moisture on top of that. You can use either long strand sphagnum mosscoco-fiber and/or peat moss. Or use coco-fiber with a little long strand sphagnum moss on top of that. That's what I've done with the tanks below. Another option is to use what the Atlanta Botanical Gardens use. The ABG mix is 2 parts tree fern fiber, 1 part peat moss, 2 parts cocofiber, 1 part charcoal, and 2 parts orchid bark.


After the substrate is in, pour water into the tank until the clay ball layer is filled with water. That way water will constantly wick up into the cocofiber layer and keep it moist. Here it is after the initial planting. I placed a couple pieces of driftwood and a cocohut on the bottom. Then I covered the bottom with Riccia. I then scattered some Java moss on the bottom and on the background. The Java moss on the background will look awesome later. 


OK, here is one of them after a couple months. See how tall the java moss is getting? This tank needs some big frogs like a tinctorius, azureus, auratus, or leucomelas. This is a good size tank for these frogs.




Here's a 20H horizontal decorated by my helper, Conner. It's got Riccia on the ground, java moss on the cocohut, Selaginella on the far right, some Suzy Wong fern in the back and Anubias barteri in the foreground and in the back. Notice the frog poking his head out?



Here's a 5.5g tank made by my 5 year old daughter. We put a Zoo-Med cork background in first, then layers of pea gravel, sphagnum moss, and cocofiber. We didn't put the screen layer in, just skipped it. We also didn't fill the bottom with water but it will need hand misted often.



Lighting: The key to plant growth is having the right bulbs. A Kelvin rating of 5000 to 6700 is perfect. The cheapest way to do this is buy a four foot long shop light (get the T-8 electronic ballast variety rather than the standard T-12 magnetic ballast). These are typically $17 at Home Depot but I found them on sale one time for $5 and cleaned out two whole stores worth!! (This turned out to be a bummer by the way, the ballasts died at a rate of about one per week for two years. Now I'm replacing the ballasts as they die with a GE UltraMax T8 ballast that is about $21.) Also, at Home Depot you can find the 4' bulbs. I usually get a T-8 5000K bulb and a T-8 6700K bulb for each dual strip light. The bulbs cost $5 to $8 each. This is how I have all of the lights on all of my aquariums and terrariums (a few have power compacts). However, a four foot shop light does not look particularly nice on top of a 10 gallon vertical terrarium (or a 24" wide 20 gallon high terrarium). So either set up 4 feet worth of terrariums and put one shop light on top or switch to power compacts. For 10 gallon vertical tanks I use the 18 watt mini and for the 20H tanks I use the 24" freshwater power compact (Both from fosterandsmithaquatics). Be absolutely sure to order the "Freshwater" version. The Freshwater has a 6700K bulb and is perfect. Be careful about the temperature of the tank. Frogs are very sensitive to heat so put a thermometer in the tank and make sure the temperature never exceeds 80°F. The light is the usual culprit so buy the legs for the power compact to keep the light an inch or so off the tank (the legs are sold separately for some reason). If you're using some other kind of light just be sure to keep it raised up a little bit. Many frogs like it much hotter than 80°F in nature, but not in our tanks at home. I think this is because we are not providing enough ventilation in our tanks. The hobby is young but we're learning! The initial thought was a tightly sealed tank to keep the humidity up, but our tanks are probably too humid and they need much more ventilation, especially if they are getting hot. Remember, a hot day in a greenhouse is much worse than a hot day outside the greenhouse with a nice breeze going by! In any case, if you're just starting out I would keep it under 80°F. Try to provide a large vent hole somewhere in the top or sides of your tank (covered with mosquito netting of course!). By large, I mean at least a couple of inches in diameter. As long as there is water in the base of your terrarium you don't have to worry about the humidity. It will be high enough.

Misting systems. These aren't essential, but they sure are nice. If you just have one tank they aren't worth the money. For example, there is no misting system on the tank in my office that I showed at the very top of this page. But at home where I have 46 tanks, a misting system is essential. I got mine at Ecologic, but I also recently got a different kind of system for my chameleons at mistking.com. The second kind of system is much more expensive but very nice, of course. I haven't tried hooking up more than a few tanks to the second system so I don't know how it compares to my 46 tank system.

Waterfalls and ponds: Adding a waterfall is easy. Just put a water pump under the gravel and attach a hose that goes to the top of the waterfall. Use a ViaAqua model 180, 360, or 480 from fosterandsmithaquatics. Then fill the tank with water so that the gravel layer is almost completely underwater. The screen and substrate above that is not underwater. You can see the water level in the 59 gallon tank below. It doesn't reach the top of the gravel layer. There is a pump in the back right corner of the tank, under the gravel, that lifts water to the top of the driftwood. The water runs down the driftwood and falls back into the pond. The pond is made by simply not putting gravel or substrate in that area. The screen that separates the gravel and the rest of the substrate is just cut to shape. I have the bottom of this tank drilled and there is a hose with a ball valve at the end so that I can empty it. Then I just add new water by pouring it in from the top with a bucket. I change the water every month or two. Drilling the bottom is not necessary. Instead, you can just siphon the water out.


My new 75 gallon terrariums (2010): My helper, Conner, and I made an 8 foot rack out of 2x4's. We put two 75g tanks on the top and two on the bottom. Each tank had a 1.5" hole drilled in the back for drainage (this size hole is for 3/4" bulkheads from fosterandsmithaquatics). The drains head to the floor drain like every other tank in the basement. We put a glass divider in every tank so we basically have 8 separate enclosures of almost 40 gallons each. We put a waterfall in each tank. The waterfall basically filters the water by pulling water from one end of the terrarium to the other through the gravel. It's like the undergravel filter of a fish tank. To do this we put a viaaqua 360 pump on one end of the tank, surrounded it with Poret filter foam from swisstropicals and pumped the water to the other side of the tank under the glass divider. Rocks, wood, etc.. was used as the waterfall. Gravel was added several inches deep and sculpted to make pond areas. Screen was layed on top of the gravel and then a mix of top soil and cocofiber was put on top of that. We also came up with a nice new lid idea to get more ventilation at the front of the tank. The back half is standard glass with a hole drilled for the misting system. The front half is made of screen door framing with a sheet of glass laid into it. The sheet of glass leaves a 1" gap at the front that was covered with mosquito netting. Then we screwed a cabinet handle into the frame.

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Verticals: Almost all of my tanks are verticals, although they're a much bigger pain in the butt to make than horizontals. We've worked on several designs trying to figure out how to get air flow across the door to prevent fogging. The simplest (with no air flow) is to take a regular fish tank and cut a piece of glass to fit the bottom 4" to 6". Cut another piece to be the door. Connect them using the hinge from fosterandsmithaquatics. Then silicon the bottom piece into the tank and you're all done. However, it is very important to realize that when you stand this tank up and put some water in the bottom it might leak all over the place. This has nothing to do with anything that you did wrong. It's because the plastic top to the fish tank may not have been siliconed completely around the top when it was manufactured. So it's the top that's leaking, not your door. Be sure to seal the top with silicon on the inside and outside of the tank before installing your door. Below I've put pictures of various designs that try to get air flow going from the bottom of the door to the top to keep them from fogging. The only design that succeeds has the big gaps above and below the door. These are harder to build (more pieces) but have good ventilation and no fogging.

Here's version 1 with the big gaps (all of these are 20H tanks). This version uses four separate pieces of glass. There is no background, just a piece of cork with java moss on it. The top piece of glass holds the mosquito netting down and holds the latch. Then there's the door, the hinge, and the bottom piece of the door that is siliconed down. Then there's a gap with mosquito netting and finally the bottom piece that is also siliconed in. Note the little pool of water made by just scraping away the gravel. The water level is set by the overflow that is in the back of the tank (the bulkheads can be made from spare pvc parts or bought complete here). Water is always added by the misting system with the excess going out the overflow to the floor drain.


Version 2: This is easier because it only has two pieces of glass instead of four. To get air flow, the top corners were cut off of the bottom piece with the gaps covered by screen. I was hoping the gap around the door would be big enough to provide air flow out the top. It sort of works.



Here's some 10 gallon verticals that I sold with the fancy backgrounds




Here's a 10 vertical with a pond in the front:



So how much do these cost to build?

20H tank $27 (a 10 gallon would be $8 to $10) 
3 extra small driftwood from superiorenterprise.com in background $3 (comes 25/box) 
1 small driftwood from fosterandsmithaquatics in background $7
1 medium driftwood from fosterandsmithaquatics in background $10
glass for top $7 (1/2 of a 28x30 sheet from Ace Hardware)
Hinge from fosterandsmithaquatics $4 (1/3 of a $13 strip)
knob $0.50
Handi foam from fosterandsmithaquatics  $10 (1/2 of a $20 can)
coco-fiber or peat from my supplies page $5
leca balls or gravel $5 
long strand sphagnum moss from my supplies page $2
screen $1

Then there's decorations. Typical is another medium and two extra small driftwoods ($12), a cocohut ($5), bromeliads ($5 each), java moss, Fica pumila, and other assorted plants. So let's say $20 here. Total is about $100 (and you still need a light).  Compare this to starting a saltwater aquarium or even a freshwater aquarium with the filtration and heating gadgets you'd have to buy!

That's about all the advice I have on building dart frog terrariums. More info can be found in these Dart Frog books.