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Leaf Litter Invertebrates as Food for Small Insectivorous Amphibians and Reptiles

Green Frog MetamorphThose of us who keep the smaller varieties of insect-eating reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates (dwarf leaf chameleons, bark scorpions), or who raise the young of others (many newly-transformed frogs and baby lizards), are faced with great challenges when it comes to providing a balanced diet.  Many of these animals consume dozens if not hundreds of different types of invertebrates in the wild.  Yet in captivity they must get by on very limited number of commercially bred insects – pinhead crickets, fruit flies and springtails.  Although vitamin/mineral supplements help, the situation is far from ideal, especially where little-studied species are concerned.

Special Concerns

The problem is particularly acute because nutritional deficiencies suffered early in life are difficult or impossible to reverse later on…reptiles and amphibians that remain small never outgrow this dilemma.  Those of you with an interest in invertebrates may face similar concerns when you breed mantids and certain spiders and scorpions.

An Ideal Food Source for Smaller Pets

A very simple (and free!) solution to this problem lies as close as the nearest pile of decaying leaves – leaf litter invertebrates.  A vast army of tiny decomposers and scavengers – ants, slugs, millipedes, sow bugs, beetles, mites, springtails, bristletails and termites – inhabit accumulated leaves in city gardens and pristine forests alike.

Even excluding earthworms, the weight of the invertebrates in a single acre of New England forest leaf litter can top 3 tons – greatly exceeding that of all resident mammals and other vertebrates!  So how do we get at them? More on that next week.

Other Sources of Tiny Insects

The Zoo Med Bug Napper, a very effective insect trap that I rely upon throughout the warmer months, will attract tiny gnats, moths, beetles and flies along with larger insects.  These too make fine foods for your smaller pets.

For information on a simple method of gathering termites, please see my article Building a Termite Trap.

Next time I’ll explain how to harvest and use this bonanza of free food, and my unexpected find when visiting reptile collections overseas.

Further Reading

Several tiny invertebrate species can be cultivated as food.  Please see my articles on Breeding Flour Beetles  and Sow Bugs for further information.



  1. avatar

    Hey Frank,

    I had some elodea mixed with duckweed sitting on my desk here waiting for pickup by a relative for her bettas, when I noticed tons of little black bugs in the bag(first thought: how am I going to explain these away when she comes to get the plants…). Apparently the duckweed in the bag had died and the aphids were looking for a new place to go.

    Rhopalosiphum nymphaeae(waterlily or plum aphid) is almost certainly the species. I know some dart frog hobbyists culture pea aphids(seem to be lots of trouble since they need at least weekly attention when cultured on pea sprouts)…I wonder if these would also be appropriate. They unfortunately do not get as large. But all they would need would be smatterings of duckweed in a damp container to culture them. I’ve seen them in fishtanks with duckweed but to my knowledge no fish ate them much(they can survive underwater for quite a while). you could probably culture duckweed in seperate tanks, scoop it out and put it in a margarine container or similar with the aphids. To harvest, tap the aphids out of the container.

    After some reading the aphids really do not damage duckweed much with their feeding(though they do transmit plant viruses to some other aquatic plants)…so theoretically you could culture them in shallow water on the duckweed but I think they wouldn’t reach high enough densities to be harvested easily. Perhaps for backup cultures.


    • avatar

      Hello Joseph, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Good to hear from you again…as always, I can count on you for a most original and interesting note (and to go beyond my own “alternate food” trials – I tried increasing aphid densities by enclosing infested plants in fine netting, without much luck!).

      I think you may be onto something quite useful… great observation and reasoning. Many aphids reproduce sexually and asexually, and they have evolved to take quick advantage of abundant food sources. If fed well, they should explode in numbers. Smaller amphibians relish terrestrial aphids, and the same may well hold for those you mention. I’m in touch with a few people who share our penchant for such musings – I’ll be sure to recommend your idea.

      Many quite large turtles, common snappers included, consume huge quantities of duckweed – not only for the plant itself but for the myriads of tiny creatures, such as those you describe, that are always found therein. In fact, a number of turtles have evolved a feeding method known as neustophagia to filter particulate food matter from the water’s surface. The turtle opens its jaws at the surface and rapidly pumps the throat, which has the effect of drawing in only the thin surface film. A rapid snap of the jaw expels the ingested water and retains the organic matter. Neustophagia enables a relatively large turtle to obtain significant nutrition from a food source that would be otherwise too small to exploit.

      Thanks for keeping me thinking, enjoy,

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    I’d be very interested in hereing what your contacts have to say on this.

    I’m sure the pond at home has numerous aphids at this point. Right now a few are clinging to floating elodea leaves in a clothesbox with Pleurodeles waltl larvae(which have not shown interest). They seem to be doing fine and molting but for a true test I need lots of duckweed or other plants, and some animals interested in eating them.

    • avatar

      Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks as always for the interesting post and the update on the aphids. I have not yet found out anything new, but will pass along any new information that I come across.

      The aphids may need to be submerged before the ribbed newt larvae show any interest. I bet they would be grabbed from the plants by red-spotted newts ands other small, semi aquatic species.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar
    Nina The Reptile Lover

    Dear Frank,
    What if we come across a copperhead hiding in the leaves while we’re finding bugs? I have a baby five lined skink that I rescued from my cat. He suffered a loss of her tail. It’s a female. Shall I look for a millipede?

    • avatar

      Hi Nina,

      Rare to be bitten while out and about in the USA; if copperheads are common near you, disturb area with a stick before touching leaves…never a good idea to put your hands in a place you cannot see clearly; scoping leaves with a net is a safe option.

      It’s difficult to provide enough food and the right variety for hatchling skinks, as they need lots of Calcium and other nutrients when growing. Tail will grow back more quickly if you release the animal…during the summer, they eat continually. best, frank

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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