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My Animal Collection: How a Herpetologist Keeps American Toads and Related Species, Part III

Please see Parts I and 2 of this article for information on housing and diet. Today I’ll conclude with some thoughts on toads in community terrariums and the wild.

Tank mates
American toads are quite peaceful towards one another, but larger animals will nudge others from food, so keep an eye on them at feeding time. The conditions favored by toads are also suited to a number of other interesting creatures, and their diets and temperaments suit them ideally to community terrariums.

Wood FrogCompatible animals include spotted, tiger, marbled, slimy and other terrestrial salamanders (see photo), wood frogs (see photo), gray, barking, green and other native treefrogs and land snails. Assuming that space permits the establishment of a warm basking area (without over-heating the toads), you can also house a number of small reptiles with American toads. I have had kept them with 5-lined skinks, Italian wall lizards, green anoles, DeKay’s (brown) snakes, ring-necked snakes and smooth green snakes. There are other possible toad-companions as well – please write in if you would like more suggestions.

Free-Living Pets
Spotted SalamanderAmerican toads will utilize favored burrows for years on end, with wild individuals documented as remaining within the same territory for over 20 years. If you have a population living nearby, encourage the toads to stay nearby by providing a shallow, easily-exited pool and some retreats in the form of half-buried, inverted clay flower pots. Resident toads will learn to gather at an outdoor light in hopes of an insect meal, and will otherwise delight you with their comings and goings.


We know little about the movements of adult amphibians, but it does seem that American toads are usually found within a limited home range, so one can become quite familiar with the individuals resident in a garden or similar area. An interesting article on the home ranges of American toads is posted at:

My Animal Collection: How a Herpetologist Keeps American Toads, Bufo (Anaxyrus) americanus and Related Species, Part II

Click: My Animal Collection: How a Herpetologist Keeps American Toads, Bufo (Anaxyrus) americanus and Related Species, Part I, to read the first part of this article.


American ToadAmerican toads are, in contrast to many amphibians, quite resilient in terms of temperature tolerance.   However, they do best at moderate temperatures, and in the heat of summer will attempt to burrow below the substrate.  Mine are kept at room temperature, which ranges from 62 F in winter to 78 F in the summer.  During particularly hot spells, I move them to an air conditioned room or the cool basement.

Naturalistic and “Hybrid” Terrariums

Toads also adapt well to planted, naturalistic terrariums.  A substrate of top soil and peat moss will allow them to construct burrows, which will be used repeatedly by the same animals.  Cover the soil with one of the moss-based products listed above and dead leaves in order to retain moisture.

A “hybrid” type set-up combines certain features of both styles described above.  A substrate of smooth aquarium stones (1/2 inch size or larger, to prevent ingestion) allows for live plants but deters burrowing (see photo).

R-Zilla Rock Dens serve well as shelters in such terrariums, or you can create your own using cork bark or rocks.  When designing rock caves, consider that the toads may injure themselves if able to burrow and collapse the structure.  Exo-Terra Terrarium Plants are extremely life-like and can be used to good effect in naturalistic terrariums as well.

A Terrarium for Public Display

I designed the gravel-base terrarium shown in the accompanying photo for a museum in New York City.  Zoo-Med Terrarium Moss is mixed into the gravel, which itself sits on an Under-gravel Filter Plate.  A drain cut into the tank’s glass bottom allows the entire terrarium to be hosed down.  A water reserve is kept below the under-gravel plate, creating a damp but not wet environment for the resident toads and salamanders.

Feeding American Toads and Their Relatives

Wild Caught Invertebrates

From spring through fall, I feed my toads exclusively upon wild-caught invertebrates.  A Zoo Med Bug Napper yields plenty of moths and beetles, and easily meets their needs.  However, I enjoy poking around, and so also collect tree crickets, sow bugs, harvestman (“daddy longlegs”), millipedes, termites, earthworms, field crickets and caterpillars whenever I am able.  I feed the toads just about every day during the summer (2-3 small insects each) and 2-3 times weekly when temperatures drop.

I avoid spiders, fireflies, ladybugs and brightly-colored insects, due to possible toxicity problems, and do not collect for a week or so after the area has been sprayed to control West Nile virus.

Commercially Available Insects

During the winter, I keep breeding colonies of sowbugs, earthworms and mealworms as a food source for my collection (regarding mealworms, feed toads only newly molted, or white grubs, and beetles).  The balance of the diet is made up of crickets, roaches, waxworms and butter worms.

Training your pet to tong-feed will go a long way in helping you to introduce dietary variety.  By doing so, I have been able to add Zoo Med Canned Caterpillars and Grasshoppers to my toads’ diets.

I powder feeder insects with a Tetra Repto Cal Supplement once weekly during the winter.  I’ve found that such is unnecessary in summer, when wild caught invertebrates dominate the diet.

Some Thoughts on Prey Size

I have always believed that American toads are designed, by mouth structure and feeing behavior, to take smaller-sized prey than do similarly-sized frogs (i.e. the green frog, Lithobates clamitans).  Even when feeding adult toads, I rarely use insects larger than a ½ to ¾ grown cricket.  Toads under my care are still thriving in their late 20’s and, while I cannot document such, I believe that prey size may be a contributing factor.


I’ve written other articles on toads and on amphibian care in general.  Please check out the following when you have a chance:

Canned Insects and other Invertebrates – An Important New Food for Pet Reptiles and Amphibians

Making the Most of the Mealworm: some tips on enhancing the nutritional value of this pet trade staple

Providing a Balanced Diet to Reptile and Amphibian Pets – approaches to consider

Terrestrial Isopods (Sowbugs, Pillbugs, Potato Bugs) As Food for Captive Reptiles and Amphibians

The Marine Toad, Bufo marinus (recently re-classified as Rhinella marina) in Nature and Captivity – Part I, Natural History

My Animal Collection: How a Herpetologist Keeps American Toads, Bufo (Anaxyrus) americanus and Related Species, Part I

American Toad Setup

Today’s article is the second in a series concerning animals in my own collection.  For additional information concerning this line of articles, please see My Animal Collection: How a Herpetologist Keeps Barking Treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa) and Gray Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor).

Note: the following information is also largely applicable to other toads that commonly appear in the pet trade, i.e. the Great Plains toad, B. cognatus, the Gulf Coast toad, B. valliceps, the southern toad, B. terrestris, Woodhouse’s toad, B. woodhousei and the Texas toad, B. speciosus.  Fowler’s toads and the various Spadefoot toads prefer arid substrates…I’ll cover the care of both in the future.

Most North American toads in the Genus Bufo have been recently reclassified within the Genus Anaxyrus, but not all herpetologists agree on this point.

An Ideal Terrarium Pet

As with many of the animals I favor, American toads have much to offer the hobbyist but are not as popular as some of their more colorful relatives (actually, they vary greatly in color – I have run across yellow, reddish and nearly black specimens in the field).

Perhaps because they are so well- protected by virulent skin toxins, American toads are calm and confiding in captivity.  They usually take on diurnal habits, and even wild caught adults will feed from the hand in short order.  Pardon the stretch, but their behavior brings to mind that of the striped skunks I have kept.  Skunks seem to know that they are “untouchable”, and hence are very approachable (even in the wild)…toads are much like that, at least in my mind!

They are also quite intelligent and responsive – please see my article entitled “Amphibian Learning Abilities – the Southern Toad, Bufo (Anaxyrus) terrestris and Bumblebee Mimicsfor further details.

Designing the Terrarium

I currently keep 2 yearling American toads in a Tom Aquarium Jumbo PLA-House Plastic Terrarium.  This terrarium’s ventilation ports assure adequate air exchange (despite favoring moist habitats, toads and other amphibians fare poorly in stagnant air) yet are small enough to prevent small feeder insects from escaping.  This set-up is dismantled and cleaned weekly – the terrarium’s light weight simplifies this chore.


The substrate pictured in the photo is R-Zilla Compressed Frog MossAmerican toads prefer a drier environment than do most frogs, so I use only ½ to ¾ of the amount of water called for in the instructions when preparing the moss (the moss is packaged dry, and must be reconstituted).  Hagen Exo-Terra Plume Moss and Zoo Med Terrarium Moss are also good choices for toads and other amphibians.

In this terrarium, the substrate is rinsed or spot-cleaned once mid-week and replaced weekly.  As with most amphibian terrariums, I use only hot water to clean, with bleach or table salt added when something stronger is called for.


The terrarium is sprayed once daily with de-chlorinated water.The toads also frequently soak in their water bowl…just bear in mind that they are poor swimmers, so provide an easily-exited container for their pool.

Terrarium Decorations

I set up the terrarium in manner that encourages easy visibility and feeding- time interactions.  This is not always possible with amphibian pets, of course, as secretive species will languish and die if unable to hide.  American toads take to it readily however, and so observations, feeding and cleaning are much simplified.  In this terrarium the toads have become quite tame – noticing when I enter the room hopping forward in anticipation of a meal.

I provide a Zoo Med Turtle Hut or a Cork Bark Hollow as a retreat, but the toads are more often to be found on top of it, scanning the moss for insects or, it seems, watching the room in general.


The PLA-House Hood Light fits right onto the terrarium’s lid, and is useful for providing additional illumination without excess heat.

In planted terrariums, a Reptisun 2.0 Florescent Bulb will provide sufficient light for plants without exposing the toads to harmful levels of UVB – most amphibians have UVB “filters” in their skin, and actively avoid the sun.

Click: My Animal Collection: How a Herpetologist Keeps American Toads, Bufo (Anaxyrus) americanus and Related Species, Part II to read the rest of this article.


My Animal Collection: How a Herpetologist Keeps Barking Treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa) and Gray Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor)

Today I would like to offer a look at how I set up a terrarium for animals in my own collection. After decades keeping animals privately and professionally, my techniques have become a fusion of tried and true methods and ideas that I have either worked out or (often!) stumbled across. Of primary importance has been the writings and personal advice of many kind and dedicated people.

Wonderful but Neglected Terrarium Pets
Frogs in My Battery Jar Terrarium I’ve never quite understood why barking and gray treefrogs have remained largely ignored by herptoculturists. Both are beautifully patterned – the gray frog subtly, the barker often quite brilliantly – and almost always make themselves right at home in captivity. Wild caught adults of either species have hand-fed for me as soon as 1 week after capture, and a gray treefrog that I have now approaches the glass when I enter the room, in a much more “turtle” than “frog-like fashion”. At nearly 3 inches in length (and appearing larger due to its stocky frame), the barker is the USA’s largest native treefrog, exceeded only slightly in size by the introduced Cuban treefrog (Osteopilus septentrionalis).

Setting Up a Battery Jar Terrarium
I currently keep 1 barking and 1 gray treefrog in a battery jar terrarium of about 10 gallon capacity. I favor battery jars for the simple reason that they were always mentioned in the naturalist/pet-keeping books of yesteryear. As a child, I had no idea what a battery jar was, but imagined it to be a fabulously exotic item, the possession of which would confer instant “professional animal-keeper” status upon me.

In reality, battery jars are thick-walled, usually cylindrical glass containers available from biological/laboratory supply houses. Their vertical orientation serves arboreal frogs well, but a 20 gallon “extra-hi” aquarium or larger plastic terrarium is also perfectly suitable.

My battery jar was modified for use as a terrarium by Bob Holland, a friend who was well-known in the 60’s and 70’s for his success in keeping – years ahead of most public collections – poison frogs, banded tree snails, woodland salamanders, mosses, ferns and a host of other delicate organisms.

Bob used aquarium silicone and a piece of glass to create a small pool and to attach a hollow piece of lava rock about ½ way up one side of the terrarium. The lava rock functions as a planter, and the area below as secure shelter…the treefrogs rarely use it, but in earlier times it was favored by a marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum).

My skillful friend cut a ventilation panel into the terrarium’s glass top, a task I would not attempt. Commercial glass cutters can do this for you if you are as “tool-challenged” as I, after which you can silicone a piece of fine screening in place.

The substrate is Eco earth loose coconut with a bit of sphagnum moss mixed in. A layer of aquarium gravel and activated carbon, situated below the substrate, assists in drainage and ammonia absorption. I use live, locally collected moss on top of the substrate – you’ll need to experiment with the moss species, but many do well with moderate lighting and daily misting. Compressed frog moss works well to fill in dark corners, or as a substrate for the entire tank if you prefer.

Live Plants, Light and Decorations
I chose the live plants for this terrarium based upon their serviceability as frog perches and modest light requirements. The aptly-named cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) is nearly indestructible, and is often used as a perching site. The Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modesta), snake plant (Sansiveria spp., not pictured) and earth star (Cryptanthus spp.) are equally hardy. Earth stars are a favorite of tarantula-keepers, as they get by on very little light (they turn brown at such times, but return to red when moved to a brighter location).

A Reptisun 2.0 florescent bulb provides sufficient light for the plants without exposing the frogs to harmful levels of UVB – most amphibians have UVB “filters” in their skin, and actively avoid the sun.

A Caution Concerning Light
Another Frog Terrarium ShotI have noticed corneal opacities in green and gray treefrogs that consistently perch directly below even low-level UVB output bulbs. To be on the safe side, keep track of your frogs’ perching habits. Most tend to choose the same spot day after day, and it is usually an easy matter to fashion a shield (i.e. an artificial plant) between the frog and the bulb.

A few attractively-weathered pieces of driftwood provide additional climbing surfaces. Exo terra terrarium plants are extremely life-like, more so when integrated among living plants. I find them especially useful in creating exhibits in zoos and museums, where the plant species used must match those found in the subject animal’s habitat, or where light levels limit the use of live plants.

One drawback of a battery jar terrarium is the relatively small area that can be vented. In the summer, temperatures within may become too warm for most amphibians, if even a florescent light is used. The aforementioned plants will usually survive on room light alone for a few months – to be safe, I set the terrarium light to go on for 2-3 hours during the cool of morning.

Plants as Waste Managers
I always fear downplaying the importance of regular cleaning, and it is not my intention to do that here. However, well-planted terrariums that are lightly stocked with animals are a delight to maintain.

The key is to have enough plants with vigorous root systems, live moss if possible and to find the right balance of plants and animals. The tank pictured here would actually be more easily maintained with just 2 gray treefrogs, or a single barking treefrog, as opposed to 1 of each, but I am familiar with its capabilities, and monitor it carefully. This terrarium has been up and running, with only two major substrate changes (one after housing a sick animal), for nearly 12 years.

Help From Snails and Sowbugs
In addition to the plants, I am assisted in tank maintenance by a thriving colony of land snails and sowbugs (Check Out: Terrestrial Isopods as Food for Captive Reptiles and Amphibians ). Both avidly consume the frogs’ waste products and decaying plant material, and neither requires additional food. The sowbugs provide an alternative food source for the frogs as well. I spot clean when necessary, occasionally replace the top inch of substrate, and change the pool’s water by wicking it out with paper towels. A layer of activated carbon below the substrate (an old trick now largely forgotten) helps to absorb nitrogenous wastes.

Feeding Native Treefrogs
Wild Caught Insects
Frog swallowing a hand-fed cricketMy gray treefrog hatched in captivity, and the barker acts as though it did – both feed avidly from the hand. This allows me to more easily provide a varied diet, as they will take canned insects such as caterpillars and grasshoppers. From spring through fall, I feed the frogs exclusively upon insects that I trap with a Zoo Med Bug Napper or collect around my outdoor yard light. An insect or 2 each day or so suffices, and the dietary variety is key to good health (Check Out: Providing a Balanced Diet to Reptiles and Amphibians).

This is just a thought, but I believe it cannot hurt to attempt to provide arboreal and flying insects to tree frogs – especially so if you live within the range of the frogs that you keep. Mine favor moths, tree crickets, small katydids, caterpillars, beetles, harvestman (“daddy longlegs”) and flies. I avoid spiders, fireflies, ladybugs and brightly colored species, due to possible toxicity problems, and do not collect for a week or so after the area has been sprayed to control West Nile virus ( I believe the plane-sprayed insecticides kill far more cicadas than mosquitoes, but I digress…).

Commercially Available Insects
During the winter, temperatures in the terrarium average 62-65 F, the light cycle is reduced to 8 hours, and the frogs slow down. A once-weekly feeding of crickets (use only small ones for gray treefrogs), mealworm beetles, waxworms and earthworms holds them until tastier meals return (most treefrogs refuse earthworms, but some individuals will accept them).

I powder feeder insects with a vitamin/mineral supplement during the winter only – I’ve found such is unnecessary in summer, when wild caught insects dominate the diet.

The frogs and terrarium are sprayed once or twice daily with de-chlorinated water (both species use the pool as well).

There are 2 nearly identical species of gray treefrog in the Eastern USA. You can learn how to distinguish them, and a bit about the National Wildlife Federation’s laudable Frogwatch USA Program, at:

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