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The Natural History and Captive Care of the Pickerel Frog

Pickerel FrogPickerel Frogs, Lithobates palustris, are “early risers” from winter hibernation and may travel quite far to reach their breeding ponds and summer habitats.  As a result, they often become trapped in swimming pools, window wells and other such areas.  Each spring I receive a number of requests for information concerning their care and rehabilitation.  Often, folks mistake them for the better-known (but often rather scarce) Leopard Frog, Lithobates pipiens.


The body ranges from tan to greenish-brown in color and is marked with parallel rows of “almost square” black spots; a bright yellow or orange patch is present on the inner thighs.  Pickerel frogs grow to a length of 2-3.5 inches and are slender in build.


Found throughout much of eastern North America, from Nova Scotia through southern Quebec, Canada, south to southern South Carolina and Mississippi and west to eastern Minnesota and eastern Texas; absent from prairie habitats in the Midwest and the extreme Southeastern USA.  They have disappeared from most large cities and developed areas.


In the north, Pickerel Frogs are found mainly along cool, clear streams.  In the south, they occur in marshes, farm ponds, woodland pools and flooded meadows.  In contrast to most North American frogs, several populations are cave-adapted.

They are often found at the water’s edge, among shoreline vegetation, but may wander far from water to hunt in fields and woodland edges.


Pickerel FrogPickerel Frogs are declining in many areas, with local extinctions common, and are stable in others.  They appear to be very sensitive to pollutants and, in the northern part of the range, to warm temperatures.

Pickerel Frogs are listed as “declining or of special concern” in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, and are most likely extinct in Kansas.  This species was formerly fairly common within NYC (I observed them in a large park in the Bronx years ago), but may now survive only along a few unpolluted streams on Staten Island.  I have found them in highly acidic bogs on Long Island, in waters that supported few if any other amphibians.

Unfortunately, zoos pay them little attention and they are rarely bred by hobbyists.


Adults migrate from stream edges and terrestrial habitats to quiet, usually fishless ponds, vernal pools, and marshes as winter ends (December in the south, May in the north).  The eggs are attached to submerged vegetation at or near the water’s surface, often in areas that receive a good deal of sunlight.  The eggs hatch in 8-24 days.  The tadpoles feed upon algae and decaying plants and animal matter, and transform in 60-90 days.


Grasshoppers, dragonflies, beetles, moths, butterflies, spiders, earthworms, sow bugs, crickets and other invertebrates; possibly tadpoles, fish, smaller frogs and salamanders.


Skin toxins render Pickerel Frogs unpalatable to most predators, but they are consumed by mink, bullfrogs and green frogs.  The tadpoles apparently lack skin toxins, and are preyed upon a wide range of animals, including fishes, newts, turtles and aquatic insects.

Leopard FrogThe Leopard Frog, Lithobates pipiens, resembles the Pickerel Frog and shares much of its range (please see photo).  The Leopard Frog lacks powerful skin toxins but may be avoided by predators due to its similarity to the Pickerel Frog, a phenomenon known as Mullerian Mimicry.

Residues from the Pickerel Frog’s skin toxins may be fatal to other frogs.  It is theorized that Pickerel Frogs may, by releasing toxins, exclude other frogs from their habitat, but this has not been definitively established.  Other species have died after being transported in plastic buckets that formerly held Pickerel Frogs.

The bright yellow or orange “flash colors” on the pickerel frog’s inner thighs may serve to startle predators as the frog leaps away or to advertise the presence of skin toxins.

Captive Care

Pickerel Frogs may be kept as I’ve described for Green Frogs in this article.

However, they are quite high strung – more so than most native frogs – and should be given plenty of room and lots of cover.  Stressed individuals may release skin toxins that are fatal to other frogs, so they should therefore be housed alone.  Please write in for further husbandry information.



Further Reading

Pickerel Frog Natural History

Recording of the Pickerel Frog’s Call


Pickerel frog image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Sam Hopewell
Pickerel frog image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Jacob Ford
Leopard frog image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Douglas Wilhelm Harder


  1. avatar

    nicely written frank! thanks.i am becoming a big fan of your articles!

  2. avatar

    greetings! I enjoyed your article.

    I just wanted to possibly debunk the notion that the pickerel frog’s skin toxins kill other frogs. I’ve transported and housed pickerel frogs with other species (green, leopard, American toads, etc) and have never had the other species die for unknown reasons, especially after the pickerel frog was introduced. Most recently, I have a wild caught (and rather large) pickerel frog housed in a 20 gallon long tank with a captive bred Oriental firebelly toad, and they both are very healthy, and have been so for about 4-5 months since the pickerel was introduced.

    These are just my own personal experiences I wanted to share.

    • avatar


      Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated.

      I do not have any references handy, but have had several reports of apparent reactions/deaths in situations you mention; may be related to frog’s stress level; there was research at one point re pickerel frogs excluding other species via toxin release, but I’ve not looked into updates; I’ll keep an eye out, 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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