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Choosing an Ornate Horned Frog

By: R. D. and Patti Bartlett

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The ornate horned frog is one of the largest frog species and is commonly known as the "Pac-Man" frog. This name aptly fits the horned frog since, as with the computer icon, it gobbles up everything in its path. It is ready to bite anything and few cage-mates, including its siblings, are safe.

The horned frog has strong jaws equipped with sharp tooth-like processes, and a bite can be unpleasant. Beware, they can and will bite their human keeper. Their bite is tenacious, and legend has it that once the frog bites it won't release its hold until sundown and that the bite of the ornate horned frog is fatally toxic. Fortunately this is not true in either case.

The heavy-bodied and short-legged horned frog is adapted to life in seasonally wet regions. In the wild, the ornate horned frogs spend a good part of each year burrowed beneath the ground awaiting the onset of the rains. They are capable of forming a moisture-retaining cocoon around themselves to prevent drying.

Captive-bred juvenile ornate horned frogs are usually readily available in the pet trade. Occasionally adults are available as well. Typically, the babies of this species cost about $15 and up to $75 for larger frogs.

Although ornate horned frogs are available, there is a second, look-alike species, the Chaco horned frog (a species with slightly longer eyelid horns) that is also sold as the Pac-Man frog and your pet shop may not know the difference between the two. Since the care for the two is identical, unless knowing the species is important to you, it will make no difference to the frog's well being.

Origin and Life Span

The ornate horned frog is originally from temperate southern South America. Providing its quarters are kept sparkling clean and its diet well rounded, the ornate horned frog is a very easily kept, hardy, and long-lived frog. Captive life spans of more than 10 years have been reported and keeping one for 15 or more years is probably an attainable goal.

Appearance

Both the juveniles and the adults of this potentially large frog are grumpy appearing and heavy bodied. At about the circumference of a saucer, females are by far the larger sex. Males are usually only about 3 inches long, and are somewhat less apt than the females to be wider than long.

The ground color of both baby and adult is brown to green, but it's usually a bright green, with dark-edged russet spots on the sides and back. The head is comparatively huge. The "horns" on the upper eyelids, the feature from which the frogs of this family take their common name, are little more than nubbins on this species.

Behavior

These intriguing frogs are quite temperature and moisture tolerant. Although in the wild they aestivate through the dry season, captives will remain active throughout the year. Room temperature (72-84F) seems to be a perfectly acceptable temperature range for these frogs.

Unless prodded or otherwise provoked, these are slow moving, almost lethargic, frogs. However, they are almost always ready to eat and can overcome prey of quite considerable size. Most are not at all reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. Use care when ministering to the needs of these large frogs.

Ornate horned frogs are adept at burrowing, and if terrarium conditions permit, will often sit with only their head exposed, or may burrow completely from sight. Those kept in a bare aquarium with only an inch or so of clean water seem to fare equally as well as those kept in more natural conditions.

Change the water daily. Terrarium cleanliness is the key to good health and long life for these frogs.

Feeding

The diet of wild ornate horned frogs consists of insects, crustaceans, tadpoles, minnows, snails, worms, frogs, small snakes, lizards and an occasional small rodent.

Captives eat earthworms, crickets, freshly killed minnows and a very occasional pre-killed mouse. The pre-killed items should be offered from forceps.

Fast growing baby horned frogs have need for considerable calcium. Insufficient vitamin D3 can result in improper calcium metabolizing resulting eventually in metabolic bone disease (MBD). An overabundance of D3 can result in over-metabolizing of calcium, resulting in gout and other diseases of the viscera.

Handling

If you must handle your horned frog, wash your hands both before and after. Their permeable skin will absorb any impurities from your hands, and the residue of many items that humans occasionally have on their skin-- perfumes, cleaning agents, sunscreen, insecticides-- can be injurious or fatal to your frog.

These frogs are best lifted by grasping them gently but firmly around the waist with one hand. Watch the frog's movements. They can about face surprisingly quickly and will not usually hesitate to bite an approaching finger.

Handle your horned frog gently and sparingly. Do not drop it or allow the frog to hop from your hand or from a table. They can fatally injure themselves by doing so.

Housing

These large frogs are quiet and do not require a great amount of space to survive, even thrive, in captivity. Because they are very predaceous, they should be kept singly, or, if kept communally, in same-size groups.

A metamorph can be kept in a terrarium of only the size of a plastic shoebox. An adult will need a 15-gallon to a 20-gallon long terrarium. The tank may be simple in the extreme. Bare, except for a little clean, chemical-free, water and gently sloped to keep that water on the low end.

The terrarium may also contain a substrate of unmilled sphagnum with only a shallow dish of fresh water. The dish should be of large enough diameter to allow the frog to sit comfortably within. Since frogs quickly absorb impurities through their skin, it is imperative that the water and/or the substrate be kept immaculately clean.

The best temperature range is mid 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Medical Concerns

Although African ornate horned frogs are very hardy, there are a few maladies that they may contract.

Metabolic bone disease may be caused by an inability to metabolize calcium or insufficient dietary calcium.

Redleg (Aeromonas, etc. infections) is caused by poor water quality or inadequately cleaned substrate. This will require immediate sensitivity tests, medication, and improved hygiene.

Absorption of insecticides through the skin can be almost immediately fatal to this frog, or any other amphibian. Wash your hands carefully and rinse them thoroughly before and after handling your frog.

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