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Cicadas – An End of Summer Treat for Pet Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates

As summer winds down, resourceful herp keepers are presented with a unique opportunity to treat their pets to a novel food item – providing, at the same time, a source of important nutritional variety. The waning days of summer bring with them the annual die-off of untold millions of large, juicy insects – the annual and periodical cicadas.

More than 100 of the world’s 2,000+ cicada species make their home in North America, and they are widely distributed. I still hear them regularly in the heart of Manhattan, and various species are quite common in and near other large cities as well. Most have a life cycle of 2-8 years, but 7 species in the eastern USA have a 13 or 17 year cycle and a number reach adulthood in 1 year.

The entire cicada population of a given area expires within a short period, usually at the end of August or in early September in the northeastern USA. This yearly event provides a bonanza (up to 1.5 million periodical cicadas may emerge from a single acre of soil!) of nutritious food for a wide range of creatures – deer mice, wood turtles, box turtles, skunks, flying squirrels, black bears and a host of others have been observed gorging on cicadas. Even adult copperhead snakes, not normally thought of as insect eaters, partake of the feast.

If you are alert at the right time, you may find hundreds of these normally arboreal songsters, spent and cicadaabout to die, on the ground. Your medium and larger sized reptile, amphibian and invertebrate pets will consume them with gusto, and you can freeze the excess for future use. Cicadas occur on every continent except Antarctica, and pets both native and exotic – American bullfrogs, African mud turtles, red-kneed tarantulas – unfailingly attack them with gusto. You can also collect the nymphs as they emerge from the ground in early summer – this usually occurs at night, and often within as short period of time as 1-7 days.

Dietary variety is an important key to keeping your pets healthy and in breeding condition. Those of us who keep insectivorous herps and invertebrates often face limited food choices. The annual cicada die-off may provide a relatively easy way for some of us to remedy that situation.

One word of caution: I have noticed that populations of annual cicadas near NYC have seemingly declined drastically in recent years. A colleague suggested that the insecticides sprayed to control mosquitoes bearing West Nile Virus may be the culprit. I tend to agree – cicadas, with their largely arboreal lifestyles, are easy targets for insecticides sprayed from airplanes (far easier targets than mosquito larvae, which seem as common as ever). I have not run into secondary poisoning problems when feeding cicadas to captive animals, but suggest that you do not collect in areas that have been commercially sprayed.


Image attributed to wikipedia: http://www.cirrusimage.com/homoptera_cicada_T_linnei.htm

Building a Termite Trap – gathering termites as food for poison frogs and other small amphibians and reptiles

Termites make a great food for some small herpsHerp enthusiasts are, along with entomologists and exterminators, the only people who actively seek out termites – but we have good reason.  These insects (fascinating in their own right, by the way) are a valuable food source for a number of reptiles and amphibians.  Termites are particularly important for poison frogs, and form a major component of the natural diet of many species.


Termites are a valuable food for small terrarium animals, and for the young of others, because our options are limited with regard to such creatures.  Most consume a wide variety of prey in the wild, but in captivity must make due with pinhead crickets, fruit flies and springtails.  I have used termites to feed the young of a number of reptiles and amphibians (other than poison frogs) including five-lined skinks, flying frogs, marbled salamanders and others too numerous to mention, as well as species which remain small as adults (alpine newts, spring peepers, dusky salamanders etc.).  The rapid decline of many animals imposes upon us an obligation to become more effective in our captive breeding efforts – I urge you to experiment with termites and other insects.


To make a termite trap, simply take a plastic storage box – the shoebox size works well – and cut several holes of 2-3 inches in diameter into the 4 sides.  Stuff the box with damp cardboard and you’re all set (termites relish cardboard – I guess if your normal diet is wood, something softer seems like a treat!).


Search for termite nests beneath rotting logs and under the bark of dead trees.  Your trap should be located about a foot away from the nest, buried so that the top of the box is flush with the ground’s surface.  Cover the lid with a thin layer of earth and secure with a rock.  The termites will establish feeding tunnels to the box.  Remove the termite–laden cardboard from time to time, but leave the box in place so as not to disturb the tunnels.  Those more mechanically skilled than I may wish to construct PVC tube-within-a-tube systems with screw-off tops, but the plastic box works just fine.


For those of you with wide interests – termites are also eagerly consumed by tropical fish, finches, red-crested cardinals, sunbirds, bulbuls and other cage birds, and invertebrates such as whip scorpions, ground beetles and flower mantids.  The termite life cycle is very complex – escaped workers (those individuals that you will catch) cannot establish new colonies in your home – any termites that may infest your home will arrive courtesy of a colonizing queen, so please don’t blame me!



Interesting correspondence between hobbyists using termites as frog food (and a man who has trained his dog to detect termites!) is posted at: http://www.utoronto.ca/forest/termite/Decompiculture/Decompiculture/Termiticulture_emails.htm

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