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Choosing a Fire-Bellied Toad

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Fire-bellied toads make attractive, undemanding, lively, long-lived pets – but they are a species that should be kept only with other fire-bellies.

When sheltered among the plants of the vivarium these small pop-eyed pond denizens sit nearly unseen, camouflaged by their mottled black, green, and gray backs. But it's the underside of these frogs that makes them so popular: a boldly patterned bright orange belly with contrasting black reticulations that signal that fire-belly toads release toxic skin secretions that can sicken or kill animals that might try to harm them.

Appearance and Behavior

Fire-bellied toads are members of the family Discoglassidae, which must catch prey in their mouths rather than with their tongues. They are in the genus Bombina, which consists of six different species. The three species usually found in the pet market all take essentially the same uncomplicated care: clean water, a haul-out area, live food and a little light.

When startled, fire-bellies arch their heads, thrust back their forearms, and stretch their hindlegs over their backs displaying the colors of their abdomen. This is known as the "unken (German for boat) reflex" referring to the bowed shape of the frog's arched belly.

The colors that are displayed are called aposematic colors because of the warning message they send.

  • The European fire-bellied toad, Bombina bombina, lives in lowland shallow ponds, lakes and streams in Eastern Europe. A small toad that rarely grows to 2 1/2 inches long and it has a more pointed snout than the other Bombina. Its dorsal coloration is gray to brown, with a bright orange and black abdomen (venter). The black areas of the venter may be speckled with tiny white dots.

  • The yellow-bellied toad, Bombina variegata, comes from shallow water areas in central and southern Europe. When living in the same areas as the European fire-bellied toad, the yellow-bellied will usually be found at slightly higher elevations. The two species can hybridize. The adult yellow-bellied toad also reaches 2 1/2 inches in length. It has a gray-brown, warty-appearing skin and a slightly more flattened body than the other Bombina. The venter is yellow, rarely orange, with black markings. The yellow coloration is usually present on the fingertips and may appear as a solid, single patch on the underside of the thighs.

  • The most colorful, and for that reason the most common species in the pet trade, is the Oriental fire-bellied toad, Bombina orientalis. This brown to light green-backed frog with black and green patches lives in mountain streams in eastern Siberia, China, and Korea, at elevations of 5,300 to 10,000 feet. The bright belly is mottled scarlet red and black although some captive bred specimens may have yellow venters. The red color can be brought back by the addition of beta-carotene to the frog's diet. These are primarily nocturnal frogs, and of the three types mentioned here, the most aquatic.

    Housing

    Housing for the fire-bellied toads can either be aquatic or semi-aquatic. A 20-gallon aquatic tank will give you room for some half-dozen frogs. Set up the tank as you would an ordinary fish tank with a gravel or river rock bottom and a filtration system to keep the water clean and well-oxygenated. Use only water that has been dechlorinated to protect the frogs' permeable skin. Change a quarter of the water every couple of weeks. Install submerged logs, floating plants or a plastic lily pad for a resting/haul-out area. Plants also provide homes for tiny snails, small fish and aquatic insects that the frogs will eat. Also provide a spot to tip in a few small crickets at feeding time.

    A semi-aquatic tank will give the toads more opportunity to explore and give you an opportunity to create an inviting micro-environment with lush plantings, craggy logs, mosses and perhaps a waterfall. The circulating pump used for the waterfall can be used in conjunction with a filter, but water changes will still be needed at least every two weeks. Maintain the tank at a temperature between 78 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to 68 F in the winter.

    Feeding

    These frogs are insectivorous and need live food. They'll gobble up small crickets set loose on the floating plant surfaces, or on the land area of the semi-aquatic tank. Wait until the first few are consumed before adding more. Once a week, just before you add them to the tank, dust the insects with a calcium/vitamin supplement. If you raise your own crickets, feed them on a commercial cricket "gut-loading" diet before giving them to your frogs. These "stuffed" crickets further benefit the fire-bellied toad that eats them.

    Other food can include wingless fruit flies or house flies (toadlets will need the smaller fruit flies), small moths, moth larvae, small mealworms and guppies. Remember that once a week you'll need to dust the food items with vitamin/mineral supplement before you place them with the frogs. Offer the earthworms at the end of a broom straw. Earthworms are high in calcium, which helps avoid metabolic bone disease.

    These little pop-eyed denizens will soon learn to equate the approach of their owner with food, and will swim eagerly to the front of their tank, chins lifted in anticipation. They should live from 10 to 14, even 20 years and unlike some other herptiles, they'll never outgrow their tank.

    Common Diseases and Disorders

  • Metabolic bone disease may be caused by an inability to metabolize calcium or insufficient dietary calcium. Alter the amount of D3 and calcium provided. This problem is especially common in fast growing baby frogs.

  • Absorption of impurities (soaps, perfumes, cleaning agents, insecticides, insect repellents) through the skin can be almost immediately fatal to this frog, or any other amphibian.

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