Home | Amphibians | Surinam Toads (Pipa pipa) as Pets: Acclimating New Animals and Special Considerations – Part 1

Surinam Toads (Pipa pipa) as Pets: Acclimating New Animals and Special Considerations – Part 1

You’ll need to search long and hard to find a frog more bizarre than South America’s Surinam toad. Large and flat, with a pointed head and star-shaped sensory organs tipping the fingers, this tongue-less aquatic beast broods tadpoles below the skin of its back….need I say more?

“Handle With Care”
Surinam ToadSurinam toads make wonderful aquarium subjects, but a bit of special care and planning are necessary if one is to succeed with them. Although captive breeding is possible (I wrote about this recently, please see below), it is not common; hence most of the animals available in the trade are wild-caught adults.

Surinam toads seem to be gaining in popularity lately…I’ve had several questions concerning newly acquired animals posed recently, and so thought this a good time to go into the topic a bit further.

Stress and Wild-Caught Frogs
Surinam toads collected as adults have lived in my collection for over 12 years, but most wild caught individuals presented some problems when first obtained. With their permanent, upward-directed stares and relative immobility, these frogs seem so “expressionless” that it’s hard to imagine their being stressed…but internally a great deal is going on.

They are quite sensitive to change – a wild caught frog will have been through a series of traumas by the time it reaches your tank, and will usually not feed until it feels secure and out of danger (i.e. able to hide). Stress is usually very difficult to detect in amphibians, but do not be misled – it is as serious a problem for frogs as for a high strung bird (or us!).

Avoiding Injuries
Until the animal adjusts to its new surroundings, you should secure a towel or other material between the screen top and the water’s surface, as the frog will likely jump at night and may injure its snout against the screening. Be sure to secure the top with screen clips; these will hold the towel in place and prevent an escape.

The water temperature should be maintained at 78-79F. Be sure to adjust your frog to any temperature changes slowly…gradually mix new water in with old, if necessary. Dramatic temperature changes will stress the immune system and can easily lead to some of the same health problems (i.e. Ick outbreaks) as affect tropical fish in similar circumstances.

Aquarium Size
A large, deep aquarium is best. Sometimes these frogs do fine in shallow water, but they are more comfortable in deep tanks – during field research I’ve observed them being collected from 3-4 feet of water. An adult will require an aquarium of at least 20 gallons capacity, with a 30 gallon tank being preferable (a 30 gallon can house a pair as well).

Surinam toads have a very vigorous feeding response, and quite frequently swallow gravel along with their prey. It is therefore safest to house them in a bare-bottomed aquarium. Despite living over mud, sand and gravel in the wild, captive Surinam toads are very prone to impactions. I’ve observed several on autopsy that were packed full of sand, and another that swallowed a stone which seemed barely able to fit in its mouth.

Check back on Friday for the conclusion of this article.


  1. avatar

    Do you have any thoughts on the way around a barebottom aquarium with these and other animals that are well known for ingesting stuff, is their any alternative substrate you might think of?(I don’t recall seeing many bare bottom zoo exhibits!) I know with barebottom tanks that are not siphoned/filtered they eventually get a thin layer of detritus which is very fine but gets kicked up into the water readily. Seems relatively inert so long it does not become anoxic. I wonder if clay of some sort would do the trick.(this would probably wreak havoc and make the water permanently murky in anything more than a still tank!) Many animals seem to live over leaflitter in the wild(these guys included) but I haven’t seen anything duplicating that available commercially. Its interesting to me that in the wild they deal with this fine.

    I guess the alternative(which still doesn’t sound too pretty) is to paint the bottom of the tank black.

    Thanks for yet another of many great articles!

    • avatar

      Hello Joseph, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks so much for your kind words and interesting post, much appreciated.

      Surinam toads are tough when it comes to substrate, but there are a few options. The Cypress Mat, a plastic plant designed as an aquarium bottom cover for use with fish fry, can be used safely with Surinam toads, and lends a nice effect. Leave part of the bottom uncovered, so that the frogs have a choice. They may actually push into the mat and shelter there as well. Sinking driftwood can also be used, alone or in combination with the mat.

      Natural leaf litter is ideal, but, as you know, it lowers pH rapidly in most cases, breaks down etc. But a few leaves, replaced often, might be okay (avoid oak). I once set up an exhibit in a public aquarium using leaves plucked from silk plants as a substrate, but that was quite time consuming (and expensive!).

      As for gravel, I’ve used the smooth black stones marketed as “river rock” (usually found in plant nurseries) with success (3-4 inch size)…however, you need to go through and pick out the numerous small pieces that are always included.

      You bring up an interesting point re wild animals. It may be that minute differences in the nature of the substrates are at play, or that temperature, diet and other factors influence the passage of objects through the digestive tracks or (most likely) there is a great deal that I cannot yet imagine going on.

      I’m sure that some creatures make mistakes and die in the wild also. I’ve seen some evidence of this with other creatures – an anaconda that apparently choked on a large side-necked turtle (Podocnemis vogli) in Venezuela; another that had serious cuts from trying to swallow a deer buck, antlers and all; a 6 foot long yellow rat snake that attempted to consume a deer fawn (St. Catherine’s Island, off Georgia)…and of course there’s the now famous photo of the Burmese python-American alligator encounter in the Everglades.

      Please let me know if you come up with any useful alternatives (I’m guessing you will!)

      Good luck and enjoy, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Within my group of 4.3 , I’ve noticed almost all toads have white with black spots and one male is black with white spots , my gf was conscern at first thinking it was fungus or even eggs ! HAHAHA , but I informed her that the female carries the eggs on her back ,but of course I doubted myself and had to look to make sure they weren’t eggs stuck on his belly ! It doesn’t look like fungus nor does it look like white rubbed spots , it looks like his natural pattern . Possibly this is a locale thing ? Perhaps , like it’s just an indivdual toads , much like our finger prints , or a dolphins fins and how each one is very different ? Anyways love your website !!
    Thanks , Reg

    • avatar

      Hello Reg

      Thanks so much for the kind words. They spots do vary greatly…in fact, I used them to ID individuals, just as you suggest; the spot pattern in 1 area was drawn onto each frog’s food card.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Hey Frank, Ive had one pipa in a community tank (mostly feeder fish and gourami) for about 2 weeks now. And you seem like the guy to ask. I haven’t seen him eat one fish, I even went down to my local pet shop and grabbed a bunch of smaller feeders for him to try but I haven’t seen anything yet. Is there any special conditions I need such as lighting or a smaller amount of fish in the tank?

    • avatar


      Thanks for your interest. Subdued lighting is best at first, but please send some details as to size of tank, cover available for the frog, temperature, ph.

      As you suggest, too many fish can be stressful in some circumstances. Earthworms are favored by many, but are best fed via tongs so that gravel, if present, is not ingested. Unfortunately, most in the trade are wild caught, and the stress of shipment worsens parasite and other problems; fecal tests may be necessary if all of the above is in order,

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar

    I’ve had my group for a short while now and ALL seem to be doing very well. I’ve transfered all seven adults to 125 gallon tank and they seem happy and clicking every evening and night. I have temps about 78F , 6.0 PH , somewhat subdue lighting , alot of dead leaves on the bottom , drift wood , and lots of HUGE branches of various anubias. Everyone eats night crawlers (chopped in half) , 50 minnows lasts about 24hours , they have even ate frozen thawed minnows. They were quiet the conversational piece among my family this year at the christmas family gathering so I’m pretty proud and lucky to have a good group of toads.

    • avatar

      Hello Reggie

      Thanks for the feedback; very glad to hear the good news. Leaves are a good choice, as they seem to shelter among them in the wild, just keep an eye on pH as they and branches can cause acidification…pH may hold for awhile, then suddenly shoot up. Water changes are impt. as well, even with a good filter, as they’ll be excreting quite a lot of waste material/ammonia.

      Looking forward to hearing about eggs!

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    Pipa pipa are very much scavengers, I have observe them eating frozen/thawed fish and this morning (2.13.12) I’ve observed a few adults eat all the Pipa pipa eggs that did not attach to the original female’s back. I do feed the group of Pipa pipa lot of live bearers such as guppies and platies as well as canadian and european nightcrawlers.

    • avatar

      Hello Reggie

      Thanks for the most useful info. I was not able to ascertain for sure if Surinam Toads under my care were eating unattached eggs; good to know.

      I usually counsel folks to use live food, as that is the easiest way to get them started, but very good to have your note on dead prey. Useful as well, as may allow for more variety in the diet. Very little has been done in the way of field research/observations, so all such input is valuable, thanks.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar

    per frank’s advice here, i used a bare bottom in a 56gal aquarium. I also keep Uromastx lizards, so from reptile experience I figured the frogs would like hiding places. I had an old inner tube in the barn with dry rot-no good for the river tubing anymore. I cut out (2) 10″ squares and dropped them in tank. Frogs love to hide underneath. Although I can’t say that scrap rubber is the most beautiful tank enviroment, it cleans easily and it seems to serve an emotional purpose for them. Here is an odd behavior, i’ve noticed. they frequently stand on their hind feet on the bottom of tank with front arms outsretched. look like a dead tree. sit there for really long time, totally motionless. What is that about? Normal?

    • avatar

      Great observation, Jay, thanks. I’ve always felt they prefer to push under plants, rather than use a cave-type hideaway, so this is very interesting to hear.

      I’ve seen the same posture on many occasions. May help them to sense passing fish via lateral line organs (finger tip sensors may come into play only at close range, but no real studies that I know of). I’ve been in their natural habitat – the bottom is littered with fallen branches and limbs. Given their shape and color, I’d bet they are relatively inconspicuous when adopting this pose.

      Best, Frank

  7. avatar

    i’m on a roll posting comments this morning. another question: Do pipa pipa have the ability to change color on the belly? Sometimes my frogs have a white belly with black freckels, sometimes the whole belly is black/very dark. sometimes mottled inbetween the two extremes. Is this normal? Does it mean anything one way or the other? Thanks

    • avatar

      Very interesting posts…keep them coming anytime; I have many readers who will be interested in reading these, as am I.

      I’ve not noticed color change in this species, but nearly all frogs do so to some degree. Unless cjhange appears to be a fungus or growth, I wouldn;t worry. Best, Frank

  8. avatar

    i thought fungus at first too, but it seems to change back and forth. maybe i just need better light. i will experiment and reply later. Thanks for the very quick followup. are you like a zoo keeper or something?

  9. avatar

    Thank you very much Frank for the excellent blog. There is scant information on sur.toads. You have been very helpful. If I comne across anything interesting I’ll keep you posted. Blessings, Jay

    • avatar

      My pleasure, Jay; thanks for the kind words.

      Yes, please send along any info as well as your own observations; we’re doing better with these guys, but still have much to learn. Enjoy, Frank

  10. avatar

    I concur to what Frank says . All mine hide under Almond Leaves and drift wood , never in caves like some other Xenopus frogs would. These are by far one of the weirdest , best amphibians to have around !

    • avatar

      Hi Reggie,

      Thanks for the input; there have been no long term studies of their natural history, so we just go by what “seems” right and works. I’m sure they do quite a bit, down there at the bottom of murky rivers, that would surprise us! Shelter use may vary by population also, as they have a wide range.

      Hope yours are doing well, pl keep me posted, best, Frank

  11. avatar

    Hi Frank and other toad lovers,
    I hear clicking every night, but it is very sporadic. It only clicks for a few seconds, never giving me enough time to run to the tank and actually see anything. From what I understand only boys click. Correct? When he clicks what exactly makes the niose? Does a body part move that would be visable to us? Why do they click? Does it signify anything? Thanks

    • avatar

      Hi Jay,

      Nice to hear from you again. Only the males call; they lack the vocal chords of other frogs, but the larynx is modified to allow for sound production. The throat does not swell as in many others…you may see a very slight “quivering” of the skin along the sides, but not always.

      We don’t know all that much about why/when they call. They seem not be so seasonally-oriented as are others. I’ve always heard calls throughout the year in my collection. It may be territorial in nature, although they seem not to fight; perhaps just to warn another to back off a bit. When they are in breeding mode, calls are usually long and frequent. Most frogs have a “release call” as well, used when a male tries to grab another in amplexus (mating embrace); this may be so in Surinam Toads as well (breeding males of other species have been known to grab fish, tennis balls and collector’s thumbs, so a release call is a good thing to have!).

      Enjoy, Best, Frank

  12. avatar

    IME , both males and females have been clicking in my group . Its most likely a territorial reasons. Males def. click 90% more but I have observed females click but half the decimals and very sparatic. Yes , my group click almost everynight since I got them last year . Mine breed when the storm comes and berametric pressure changes , this causes them to go crazy and breed after three days of amplexing.

    • avatar

      Very interesting, Reggie, thanks. Several zoos are looking into barometric pressure changes as a breeding stimulus for a variety of species; even indoors, many can sense approaching storms – I recall that Chinese Alligators in the BX Zoo usually called a day or so before a storm hit. Best, Frank

  13. avatar

    Lets talk tank cleanliness. Of course, we need to regularly (every week or so) check amm level, and about every 2 weeks chnage 25%water. But i’m asking how festideous must we be with green slime growing on the walls? What is that slime anyway? Is it pathogenic badness or actually good bacteria helping the cycle? Or is it generally neutral and just ugly to us humans? It is hard getting it out of the corners of a tank.

    • avatar

      Hi Jay,

      The green slime would be hard to ID for certain, but is generally algae of one species or another, and harmless. Live plants will cut down on algae by using up nutrients that the algae depends upon.

      Best, Frank

  14. avatar

    Hi Frank, Its November. I bet it is pretty cold where you are. I hope you have no Sandy problems. It is chilling down in TX too. Up till now I’ve not bothered with a tank heater. The frogs have been same temp as me in the house, mid to high 70’s. Now the water has dropped to low to mid 70’s. Your blog recomends 78F. How much variation on the temperature is ok for them? What is the minimum before problems? If I get a submersible tank heater does it burn thier skin if they snuggle up with it? Thanks.

    • avatar

      Hi Jay,

      Thanks for your concern. I lost power for a few days; I learned that cold showers are harder to take now than in years past but otherwise am fine! Many older people suffered a great deal, and still do, however. Did my best to friends’ parents, etc, but a tough situation; esp. in NYC, people are unprepared to deal with this sort of thing. I just posted an article on Amphibian Care during Power Outages.

      72 – 75 is fine, they will slow down but if in good health will be okay. A heater would be a safer option, esp if an unusual cold spell hits. I’ve never known them to rest on heaters, or to have injuries from brushing against. For animals that do, such as stingrays, I enclose the heater in perforated PVC. If you do raise temps, do so slowly, 1 “click” at a time on the heater (but in a sizable tank the heat will not rise quickly in any event).

      Enjoy, Best, Frank

  15. avatar

    yes i thought about perferated pvc to enclose the heater, but I like to catch wild minnows from the creek as my main food source. I think minnows would hide in there and evade the inevitable.

  16. avatar

    My Pipa pipas all pretty much lodge themselves between a heater and the glass wall at one time or another , my heater is set at 76 , no burns or injuries … it’s just what they do in a four wall glass tank. I will be cooling mine down to 72 and lowering the water level , I hope I get to breed them . They bred all on their own this past March. I got my Pipas as adults last year , I swear they are still growing !!!! I’m wondering just HOW big these beasts actually get ? LOL ….

    • avatar

      Hi Reggie,

      Nice to hear from you again; thanks for the input. Please let me know how all goes, and what the sizes are. Do you recall at what temperature they bred in March?

      Best, Frank

  17. avatar

    I believe it was down to 72F and there was alot of barimeteric pressure ( spelling ? ) because march 2012 was a rainy month …

    • avatar

      Thanks Reggie. many zoos are putting barometers into their reptile houses to study effects..lots of intriguing hints that it is an impt factor to some. Our crocs (several species) reacted very reliably; some interesting fish responses as well (weather loach) so not out of question that aquatic frogs can sense this as well, Please keep me posted, best, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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