Today I would like to offer a look at how I set up a terrarium for animals in my own collection. After decades keeping animals privately and professionally, my techniques have become a fusion of tried and true methods and ideas that I have either worked out or (often!) stumbled across. Of primary importance has been the writings and personal advice of many kind and dedicated people.
Wonderful but Neglected Terrarium Pets
I’ve never quite understood why barking and gray treefrogs have remained largely ignored by herptoculturists. Both are beautifully patterned – the gray frog subtly, the barker often quite brilliantly – and almost always make themselves right at home in captivity. Wild caught adults of either species have hand-fed for me as soon as 1 week after capture, and a gray treefrog that I have now approaches the glass when I enter the room, in a much more “turtle” than “frog-like fashion”. At nearly 3 inches in length (and appearing larger due to its stocky frame), the barker is the USA’s largest native treefrog, exceeded only slightly in size by the introduced Cuban treefrog (Osteopilus septentrionalis).
Setting Up a Battery Jar Terrarium
I currently keep 1 barking and 1 gray treefrog in a battery jar terrarium of about 10 gallon capacity. I favor battery jars for the simple reason that they were always mentioned in the naturalist/pet-keeping books of yesteryear. As a child, I had no idea what a battery jar was, but imagined it to be a fabulously exotic item, the possession of which would confer instant “professional animal-keeper” status upon me.
In reality, battery jars are thick-walled, usually cylindrical glass containers available from biological/laboratory supply houses. Their vertical orientation serves arboreal frogs well, but a 20 gallon “extra-hi” aquarium or larger plastic terrarium is also perfectly suitable.
My battery jar was modified for use as a terrarium by Bob Holland, a friend who was well-known in the 60’s and 70’s for his success in keeping – years ahead of most public collections – poison frogs, banded tree snails, woodland salamanders, mosses, ferns and a host of other delicate organisms.
Bob used aquarium silicone and a piece of glass to create a small pool and to attach a hollow piece of lava rock about ½ way up one side of the terrarium. The lava rock functions as a planter, and the area below as secure shelter…the treefrogs rarely use it, but in earlier times it was favored by a marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum).
My skillful friend cut a ventilation panel into the terrarium’s glass top, a task I would not attempt. Commercial glass cutters can do this for you if you are as “tool-challenged” as I, after which you can silicone a piece of fine screening in place.
The substrate is Eco earth loose coconut with a bit of sphagnum moss mixed in. A layer of aquarium gravel and activated carbon, situated below the substrate, assists in drainage and ammonia absorption. I use live, locally collected moss on top of the substrate – you’ll need to experiment with the moss species, but many do well with moderate lighting and daily misting. Compressed frog moss works well to fill in dark corners, or as a substrate for the entire tank if you prefer.
Live Plants, Light and Decorations
I chose the live plants for this terrarium based upon their serviceability as frog perches and modest light requirements. The aptly-named cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) is nearly indestructible, and is often used as a perching site. The Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modesta), snake plant (Sansiveria spp., not pictured) and earth star (Cryptanthus spp.) are equally hardy. Earth stars are a favorite of tarantula-keepers, as they get by on very little light (they turn brown at such times, but return to red when moved to a brighter location).
A Reptisun 2.0 florescent bulb provides sufficient light for the plants without exposing the frogs to harmful levels of UVB – most amphibians have UVB “filters” in their skin, and actively avoid the sun.
A Caution Concerning Light
I have noticed corneal opacities in green and gray treefrogs that consistently perch directly below even low-level UVB output bulbs. To be on the safe side, keep track of your frogs’ perching habits. Most tend to choose the same spot day after day, and it is usually an easy matter to fashion a shield (i.e. an artificial plant) between the frog and the bulb.
A few attractively-weathered pieces of driftwood provide additional climbing surfaces. Exo terra terrarium plants are extremely life-like, more so when integrated among living plants. I find them especially useful in creating exhibits in zoos and museums, where the plant species used must match those found in the subject animal’s habitat, or where light levels limit the use of live plants.
One drawback of a battery jar terrarium is the relatively small area that can be vented. In the summer, temperatures within may become too warm for most amphibians, if even a florescent light is used. The aforementioned plants will usually survive on room light alone for a few months – to be safe, I set the terrarium light to go on for 2-3 hours during the cool of morning.
Plants as Waste Managers
I always fear downplaying the importance of regular cleaning, and it is not my intention to do that here. However, well-planted terrariums that are lightly stocked with animals are a delight to maintain.
The key is to have enough plants with vigorous root systems, live moss if possible and to find the right balance of plants and animals. The tank pictured here would actually be more easily maintained with just 2 gray treefrogs, or a single barking treefrog, as opposed to 1 of each, but I am familiar with its capabilities, and monitor it carefully. This terrarium has been up and running, with only two major substrate changes (one after housing a sick animal), for nearly 12 years.
Help From Snails and Sowbugs
In addition to the plants, I am assisted in tank maintenance by a thriving colony of land snails and sowbugs (Check Out: Terrestrial Isopods as Food for Captive Reptiles and Amphibians ). Both avidly consume the frogs’ waste products and decaying plant material, and neither requires additional food. The sowbugs provide an alternative food source for the frogs as well. I spot clean when necessary, occasionally replace the top inch of substrate, and change the pool’s water by wicking it out with paper towels. A layer of activated carbon below the substrate (an old trick now largely forgotten) helps to absorb nitrogenous wastes.
Feeding Native Treefrogs
Wild Caught Insects
My gray treefrog hatched in captivity, and the barker acts as though it did – both feed avidly from the hand. This allows me to more easily provide a varied diet, as they will take canned insects such as caterpillars and grasshoppers. From spring through fall, I feed the frogs exclusively upon insects that I trap with a Zoo Med Bug Napper or collect around my outdoor yard light. An insect or 2 each day or so suffices, and the dietary variety is key to good health (Check Out: Providing a Balanced Diet to Reptiles and Amphibians).
This is just a thought, but I believe it cannot hurt to attempt to provide arboreal and flying insects to tree frogs – especially so if you live within the range of the frogs that you keep. Mine favor moths, tree crickets, small katydids, caterpillars, beetles, harvestman (“daddy longlegs”) and flies. I avoid spiders, fireflies, ladybugs and brightly colored species, due to possible toxicity problems, and do not collect for a week or so after the area has been sprayed to control West Nile virus ( I believe the plane-sprayed insecticides kill far more cicadas than mosquitoes, but I digress…).
Commercially Available Insects
During the winter, temperatures in the terrarium average 62-65 F, the light cycle is reduced to 8 hours, and the frogs slow down. A once-weekly feeding of crickets (use only small ones for gray treefrogs), mealworm beetles, waxworms and earthworms holds them until tastier meals return (most treefrogs refuse earthworms, but some individuals will accept them).
I powder feeder insects with a vitamin/mineral supplement during the winter only – I’ve found such is unnecessary in summer, when wild caught insects dominate the diet.
The frogs and terrarium are sprayed once or twice daily with de-chlorinated water (both species use the pool as well).
There are 2 nearly identical species of gray treefrog in the Eastern USA. You can learn how to distinguish them, and a bit about the National Wildlife Federation’s laudable Frogwatch USA Program, at: