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Argentine/Ornate Horned Frog Care: the “Pac Man Frog” and its Relatives

Ornate Horned FrogHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  The Argentine or Ornate Horned Frog (Ceratophrys ornata) may be the world’s most popular amphibian pet.  Dubbed the “Pac Man Frog” due to a resemblance to the large-mouthed video game character, it is beautifully colored and “charmingly” pugnacious in disposition.  Despite their size (females may be compared to salad bowls; males are much smaller), Horned Frogs require relatively little space and are an ideal choice for those seeking an interesting pet that may live to age 20 or more.  Albinos and other unique color morphs, as well as hybrids between related species, are available.

Natural History

Argentine Horned Frogs inhabit savannas (grasslands) in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. In some regions, they become dormant during cool, dry periods.

Seven related species have been described.  Of these, the Cranwell’s or Chaco Horned Frog (Ceratophrys cranwelli) is most frequently seen in the pet trade.  The following information can be applied to its care.  The Surinam Horned Frog (C. cornuta) bears the longest “horns” of all (please see photo). 

Horned Frog tadpoles communicate with one another by sound…the only vertebrate larvae known to do so.  The calls may prevent the carnivorous tadpoles from preying upon relatives…at least until other food runs out! (please see video below).

Hunting Behavior and Diet

Due to their size and aggressive personalities, Horned Frogs, known locally as Escuerzos, are the subject of many tales within their native range.  They are, for example, erroneously thought to be venomous and to attack livestock.  They are, however, formidable predators.  Studies indicate that other frogs comprise up to 80% of the diet, with invertebrates, birds, snakes and rodents making up the balance. 

They are assisted in hunting by huge mouths, powerful jaws and bony “teeth”, known as odontoid structures, that project from the lower jaw.  Although they bite readily in self defense, these stout beasts are rather clumsy and may safely be grasped behind the front legs (more on handling below).

Housing

Setting up the Terrarium

The ultimate “sit and wait” predator, a Horned Frog rarely moves unless necessary.  A 15-20 gallon tank will accommodate an adult.

Horned Frogs produce copious waste products, and ammonia poisoning is the most common cause of pet death.  Fortunately, they are quite comfortable in simple, easy-to-clean terrariums.  Ease of maintenance is the main consideration when setting up a Horned Frog habitat.

A bare-bottomed aquarium, tilted on one side to create a small water section, is ideal, as it can easily be dumped and cleaned.  Alternatively, a water bowl can be utilized. 

Horned Frogs do not require plants or other furnishings, and are unusual among frogs in that they are quite content without a hiding spot. 

Substrate

Suriname Horned FrogHorned Frogs swallow whatever enters their huge mouths along with meals, and are prone to intestinal blockages from gravel and other substrates.  Bare-bottomed terrariums or washable cage liners are best.  I’ve used Sphagnum moss with success, but please see cautions under “Feeding”. 

Light, Heat and Humidity

Horned Frogs do not require UVB light, and humidity is not a concern if they have access to a water bowl. 

A temperature range of 72-85 F suits them well.  An incandescent bulb or ceramic heater can be used to warm the terrarium, but be careful of their drying effects. 

Companions

Juveniles have insatiable appetites and invariably try to swallow even like-sized tank-mates.  They are best housed singly. Same-sized adults may co-exist, but should be fed separately as bites can occur at feeding time.

Feeding

Given the high proportion of vertebrates in their natural diet, it follows that Horned Frogs require a great deal of calcium.  Whole fishes and pink mice are ideal calcium sources; crickets alone, even if powdered with supplements, are not sufficient.

Horned Frogs do well on relatively simple fare…fish, earthworms and crickets can make up most of their diet.  Minnows, shiners or guppies should be offered, with pink mice should be used less often (once each 7-10 days).  While some success has been had by feeding adult mice and even small rats to Horned Frogs, over-use of rodents may lead to liver problems and fur impactions (please see this article). 

Crayfishes, roaches, waxworms, butterworms, silkworms and other commercially-available species should also be provided regularly.  Where practical, feeders should themselves be provided a nutritious diet before being given to your pets (please see these articles on cricket and earthworm care) To increase dietary variety, try wiggling canned grasshoppers, snails and silkworms in front of your frog (using tongs, not your fingers!).

Food (other than pinkies and fish) should be powdered with Zoo Med ReptiCalcium plus D3 or a similar product.  Vitamin/mineral supplements such as Reptivite  should be used 2-3 times weekly.

Youngsters do best when fed daily or every-other-day.  Adults require only 1-2 feedings per week, or can be provided smaller, more frequent meals. 

If you use moss or other substrates, food is best offered via tongs or in a separate, bare-bottomed enclosure to limit substrate ingestion. 

Water

Water should be changed daily and treated with a chlorine/chloramine remover.  Ammonia, released with waste products, is colorless and odorless at low concentrations.  It is rapidly absorbed by frog skin and can prove fatal in short order.  Please see this article.

Special Considerations

Albino Horned FrogHorned Frogs have powerful jaws equipped with sharp, tooth-like structures, and can inflict painful bites. Even after years in captivity, an instinctive feeding response will cause them to bite fingers moved about within range. 

Fortunately, it is a simple matter to safely pick up a Horned Frog by grasping it behind the front legs. Amphibians should be handled only when necessary, and then with wet hands, so that you do not remove the protective mucus from their skin. Wash well after handling any animal. 

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.  Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Video: vocal tadpoles

Argentine Horned Frog Natural History

Other Horned Frogs (all species)

Surinam Horned Frog Facts

Ornate Horned Frog image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Melanie Mae Brown
Suriname Horned Frog image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by H Zell
Albino Ornate Horned Frog image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Grosscha

19 comments

  1. avatar

    Great article.
    Two questions. 1) Is a bare bottom system with a filter wool liner or foam pad ideal, even though they seem comfortable when burrowed?
    2) The coolest part of my frogs terrariums during the day is generally 74 degrees F, with only a small area reaching around 80. Is 74 during the day too cool for them to digest food and stay healthy?

  2. avatar

    Hi Ronald,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Foam is ideal; if you use a filter pad be sure it is tightly-woven, so that pieces do not unravel and stick to food. They do burrow, but unlike most amphibs are rarely stressed by the lack of a hiding spot. If you wish, you can suspend some plastic plants from the screen cover of glass, so that they hand down to near floor level. The frog may shelter beneath these. Some folks also use thick upholsterer’s foam…you can cut depressions or even burrows into it, and remove to rinse out.

    That temperature range is fine; if the frog stays mainly at 74, it may feed less, which is fine. But moving about, and the spillover effect of the higher temp area, will also affect its body temperature.

    Enjoy, please keep me posted, Frank

  3. avatar

    Hi there, I was wondering how the Ornate Horned Frog Tadpoles look like!

  4. avatar

    Hi Andrea,

    Thanks for your interest. Here’s a video of some, with ifo on their unusual “screaming” behavior:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMsFhyer-_8

    Enjoy, Frank

  5. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    Have you any experience with Budgett’s frogs?

    I am curious on your thoughts on many caresheets mention of the heat requirements for these guys(Ceratophrys and Lepidodactylus). I figure coming from Argentina they must experience fairly cool temperatures in the wild. I suppose they won’t feed if it is too cold-but is that really a bad thing? Seems like today the trend is to keep them hot(80’s) and feed them alot.

  6. avatar

    I should add that I am thinking more along the lines of following the room temperatures cycles in ones home. That is, as things cool down, allow frog to become inactive. Feed more over summer while its warmer, aestivate frog in winter, etc. Save energy and maybe increase longevity?

  7. avatar

    Hi Joseph,

    Several species do experience cold winters and become dormant in the wild; Budgett’s are very interesting to keep; those in the southern portion of the range would also experience cold winters. Chilling down is always a bit risky, ailments being handled by the immune system may become more serious, etc., but breeding may be stimulated in some. Much depends upon the species and perhaps where within the range the founders originated, but normal household fluctuations…down to low 60’s F, for example, should be fine for most assuming food intake is monitored beforehand, change is gradual and they are otherwise in good health, best, Frank

  8. avatar

    If I understood well, a pac-man frog can live in a simple enclosure with no substrate and only a water bowl without getting stressed? That means it can stay in the open even at day without problems? Also, if it tries to brumate, where it will conceal itself, or it can become a cocoon in the open? Or I am understanding things wrong? Thank you very much.

  9. avatar

    They can be in a bare bottomed enclosure, but do best on terrarium liners or similar, as these hold moisture, create a better environment. Most do fine in the open, but there’s some variation among individuals. But they don’t need to burrow.. a hanging plant equipped with suction cups can be used…they will push below the plant. In coolm or dry conditions they need to burrow below soil or similar…conditions need to be just so for this to work, I generally do not suggest. Best, Frank

  10. avatar

    Of what material is the terrarium liner? Is it durable, or needs replacing? Those who have their pac-mans in soil how do they clean the terrarium?

  11. avatar

    Of what material is the terrarium liner? Is it paper? I haven’t heard of this product. Is it durable, or needs replacing? How those who keep them in soil clean the terrarium? Also, I read that they can be kept in shallow water constantly, but it sounded to me not so good. Can it be done?

  12. avatar

    Hello,

    Materials used vary, gen plastic or poly-urethane; they are durable, washable; some suggest replacing monthly but not always necessary. With soil, schedule must be fined tuned to each situation. As the frogs generally defecate in water, simply removing the top layer on occasion and breaking down monthly may be sufficient…but there are many variables. Best, Frank

  13. avatar

    Hello,

    Materials used vary, gen plastic or poly-urethane; they are durable, washable; some suggest replacing monthly but not always necessary. With soil, schedule must be fined tuned to each situation. As the frogs generally defecate in water, simply removing the top layer on occasion and breaking down monthly may be sufficient…but there are many variables.

    They have been kept in shallow water but I do not recommend; not in keeping with their natural history and requires frequent cleaning of entire tank. With a water bowl, the frogs can move away from soiled water and stay on clean substrate. Best, Frank

  14. avatar

    hey frank, long time no see wonderful article. I got a pacman frog about 2 months ago now and I’m not 100% Shure which species it is… I am fairly shure its a female due to its rapid growth, it was about the size of a fifty cent piece when I got it. now its about as big as my palm. I have it in a 29gal with live plants ,amazon sword plant and some kind of pathos. they are wonderful frogs, the one thing I was concerned with is can the normal eco earth cause impactions? I notice she will sometimes miss a cricket or superworm and eat some dirt, also she whipes night crwalers off as she eats them but doesn’t allways get all the dirt off.

  15. avatar

    Hi Cody,

    Nice to hear from you, I hope all is well.

    Eco earth can cause impactions, especially in younger animals; deaths have been documented. You’ll see reports of some doing fine, and that is true also…much depends on individual frog, the diet, calcium levels (CA assists in muscle contractions when waste is expelled), hydration, etc. Cage mats are a safe option; sphagnum moss seems less likely to be swallowed but is not fool-proof. You might also try tong feeding or moving the aninmal to bare bottomed enclosure for feeding..all adjust to this if kept hungry for a time.

    Best to go easy on supermealworms; earthworms great as a staple and be sure it is getting some whole fishes, and an occasional pink mouse….fast growth does not always equate to good nutrition, they have high CA requirements.

    C. ornata is the most commonly seen species in the trade, but others do turn up as well. You can see photos of all species here; click on each name to get detailed natural history info. Hybrids and the different color phases that have been developed can confuse ID if you use appearance alone.

    Enjoy, let me know if you need anything, Frank

  16. avatar

    Hi Cody,

    Nice to hear from you; thanks for the kind words.

    Eco earth can cause impactions, esp. in young animals; fatalities have been documented. Terrarium liners are a safe option, or you can use tongs or move the animal to a bare-bottomed enclosure at feding time. Sphagnum difficult to swallow, but not fool-proof.

    Be sure to provide whole fishes, and an occasional pinky; supermealworms best used sparingly; earthworms ideal as a staple.

    Here’s a link to photos of all species; click on each species for detailed natural history info. C. ornata is the most common, but others appear; hybrids and color-morphs can make ID difficult if you go by appearance alone (species descriptions in link above are useful).

    Enjoy and let me know if you need anything, best, Frank

  17. avatar

    Hey frank, thanks for the reply, I think its a C. ornata but yes im haveing trouble I identifying her even with good pictures, her colors change all the time, after a long period of coming out the soil I noticed she has bright yellow on her arms and a strawberry red on her stomach with black spots. when she sits on top of the soil she will darken her colors up, I thought that the eco earth would cause impactions so now im being more careful during feeding, I am currently having success laying a napkin down in front of her and putting the food on that. she wont tong feed she freezes up when anything is offerd via tongs but as soon as it touches the ground its gone. I keep the daytime temp 78-83 with 60-80 humidity and night can get down to 72-77. I have live plants in there that are doing very well. My theory behind putting the plants in there was that they would eat some of the nitrates from the soil and improve soil quality. is this true?

  18. avatar

    Hi Cody,

    Plants are always an excellent idea..let me know if you need ideas for tough-rooted species, if the frog starts to unearth them.

    Napkin fine, a buried food dish may work also.

    Watch that red on belly/inner thighs is just normal coloring and not a bacterial infection..”red leg” shows in that way; you’ll be able to see that the skin looks unhealthy, broken spots, abraded, but let me know if you have any concerns,

    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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