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How to Breed Your Amphibian

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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If you want to breed your captive amphibians, be warned: There's precious little known about the breeding of most amphibians in captivity.

Of the more than 200 species of salamanders, frogs, toads, treefrogs and caecilians offered in the pet trade, only a few dozen have been captive bred, and of these some breedings have happened by accident rather than as the result of a concerted effort on the part of their keepers.

Because of their lifestyles and especially their breeding habits, amphibians are truly "fine-tuned" to climatic and atmospheric cues. The cycle of light and dark, relative humidity, temperature, barometric pressure and rainfall are among the natural phenomena that induce annual reproductive cycling in amphibians.

Most amphibians are egg-layers, but some (such as the fire salamander and Alpine black salamander, some caecilians and a few rarely seen toads) produce live young.

Rather than being traditionally shelled, amphibian eggs are contained in a gelatinous outer-covering. They dehydrate rapidly if moisture levels are not ideal. The eggs may number from a few (small treefrogs) to many thousands (bullfrogs and other large ranid frogs).

Many egg-laying species deposit their clutches in standing water, but some species lay their eggs in damp terrestrial locations. There are variations on both themes. Among these variations are the several treefrogs termed leaf frogs that lay their eggs on leaves overhanging water (the tadpoles drop into the water after hatching) and the poison frogs (once called arrow-poison frogs) in which a parent carries the newly hatched tadpoles on its back for several days, finally depositing them in a tiny ephemeral puddle or a bromeliad-cup.

Most species that deposit their eggs in water go through a tadpole stage (frogs, toads and treefrogs) or larval stage (salamanders and caecilians), while most species that lay eggs on land undergo direct development. (The young develop fully in the egg-capsule, hatching as miniatures of the adults.)

When the Time is Right

Amphibians can use several varying breeding strategies. Some (such as chorus frogs, wood frogs, tiger salamanders) are winter breeders, being drawn from woodlands to temporary breeding ponds by winter rains during the shortest days of the year. Others, like the bullfrog, live in permanent ponds and breed during the longest and hottest days of the year.

In the tropics, seasonal day length and temperatures do not change much, but seasonal changes in rainfall can be considerable. Because of this, amphibians are induced to breed by the start of the rainy season and require a similar stimulus when captive. Even fully aquatic amphibians are stimulated to breed because the rain initially cools the river and floods the rainforests.

Many of the larger scale captive breeding programs use a natural cycle, then stimulate actual egg laying and sperm development by administering LHRH (lutenizing and release) hormones.

Although we can give you some generalities about cycling amphibians for breeding, we urge that you research each species individually.

Breeding Temperate Latitude Amphibians

To reproductively cycle your temperate latitude terrestrial or semi-aquatic amphibians:

  • House your breeders properly.

  • Be certain both sexes are present.

  • Provide a year-round natural photoperiod.

  • Do not overheat in summer.

  • As applicable, provide either a 90-day winter hibernation period or an equally long winter cooling period.

  • Following hibernation or cooling, stimulate reproduction by subjecting your breeders (both sexes) to an artificial rainfall. (See instructions below for creating a rain chamber.)

  • Provide a suitable egg deposition site.

    Breeding Tropical Latitude Amphibians

    To reproductively cycle your tropical latitude terrestrial or semi-aquatic amphibians:

  • House your breeders properly.

  • Be certain both sexes are present.

  • Provide a year-round natural photoperiod. In most cases 13 hours of daylight and 11 hours of darkness will suffice.

  • Maintain a proper temperature regimen year-round.

  • Provide a slight cooling for and reduction in humidity for 90 days.

  • Following cooling, stimulate reproduction by subjecting your breeders (both sexes) to an artificial rainfall (see instructions below for creating a rain chamber.)

  • Provide a suitable egg deposition site.

    Breeding Temperate Latitude Aquatic Amphibians

    To reproductively cycle your temperate latitude aquatic amphibians:

  • House your breeders properly.

  • Be certain both sexes are present.

  • Provide a year-round natural photoperiod.

  • Maintain a proper temperature regimen year-round.

  • Drop winter water temperature to 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit for 90 days.

  • Following cooling, warm your breeders to normal temperature for 14 days, then cool them suddenly by 10 degrees by adding de-chlorinated cold water or ice cubes.

  • Provide a suitable egg deposition site (submerged branches or water plants).

    Breeding Tropical Latitude Aquatic Amphibians

    To reproductively cycle your tropical latitude aquatic amphibians:

  • House your breeders properly.

  • Be certain both sexes are present.

  • Provide a year-round natural photoperiod (in most cases 13 hours of daylight and 11 hours of darkness will suffice).

  • Maintain a proper temperature regimen year-round.

  • Provide a slight cooling to 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 days.

  • Following cooling, warm your breeders to normal temperature for a period of 14 days, then cool them suddenly by 6-10 degrees by adding de-chlorinated cold water or a few ice cubes.

  • Provide a suitable egg deposition site (submerged branches or water plants).

    For leaf frogs: Treat like tropical terrestrial amphibians but be certain that broad-leafed plants (pothos, etc.) are suspended a few inches above the water-holding facility.

    For poison frogs: Treat like tropical terrestrial amphibians but be certain that coconut-shell (or commercial) hides are present and that the water-holding tadpole receptacle is very shallow and easily negotiated. Always maintain a high relative humidity.

    More than a single male may stimulate first territoriality then reproductive responses. If aggression becomes too overt (yes - even frogs can be aggressive) remove the subordinate male(s).

    Placing cage outside during a warm, extended rain will provide a natural stimulus. Do this only in a cage that can't flood.

    All water used with amphibians must be de-chlorinated or de-chloramined.

    Making a Hydration Chamber

    A hydration chamber can be constructed of wire mesh over a wood frame, or of an aquarium equipped with a circulating water pump and a screen or perforated plexiglass top. If you are fortunate enough to live in a benign climate where the cage can be placed outdoors and where tap water is neither chlorinated nor chloramined, a mist nozzle can be
    placed on the end of a hose, affixed over the cage and fresh water run through this for an hour or more each evening.

    If indoors, the cage can be placed on top or inside a properly drained utility tub and the fresh water system used.

    In contained systems, the circulation pump can force water from the tank itself through a small diameter PVC pipe into which a series of lateral holes has been drilled, or merely brought up to the top of the tank and allowed to drip through the screen or perforated plexiglass. It is imperative that the water in self-contained systems be kept immaculately clean.

    Consult individual species accounts for additional suggestions.

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