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Leaf Litter Invertebrates as Food for Small Insectivorous Amphibians and Reptiles – Part 2

Please see Part I of this article for further information.Last time we took a look at the amazing diversity of tiny invertebrates that inhabit leaf litter, and their importance as food for small terrarium animals such as poison frogs, dwarf leaf chameleons, and young frogs, lizards, mantids and scorpions.

Collecting Leaf Litter Invertebrates
As mentioned in Part I of this article, the springtails, ants, mites, millipedes and other creatures inhabiting a single acre of fallen leaves can add up to an astonishing 3 tons in weight! So how do we harvest all of this free food?

A technique borrowed from professional entomologists (insect scientists) works quite well. Simply place a handful of leaf litter into a funnel, suspend the funnel over a jar and position a 100 watt bulb about 6 inches above the leaves. The heat will drive the resident invertebrates down the funnel and into the jar. A damp paper towel placed at the bottom of the collecting jar will assure that the more delicate animals survive.

Using Wild-Caught Invertebrates
Remove potentially dangerous animals such as biting ants and centipedes, and dispense the rest to your poison frogs, baby anoles and other such creatures. Their reactions to this novel food will convince you of its worth – most terrarium animals become noticeably excited and feed ravenously each time they are presented with novel prey species.

Use Petri dishes if you prefer to keep your pets’ meals confined to one area. Springtails, sowbugs and others may colonize the terrarium substrate if allowed to disperse, which is also useful in some cases. You can also place small piles of leaves directly into the terrarium (after checking for dangerous species) – its great fun to watch frogs and other creatures search through them for tasty snacks.

Zoo Experiences
Others far more inventive than I came up with this technique, but I have long championed it in my articles and books…usually without much luck! Even among my zoo co-workers, my pleas fell on deaf (if amused!) ears.

So, upon touring several zoos in Japan recently I was thrilled to learn that several keepers, after reading about the topic in a book that I wrote some years back (Newts and Salamanders, which for some reason is popular in Japan), tried it out. Their results were so positive that the technique is now a regular part of the husbandry regime in several collections!

Trapping Tiny, Flying 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.

Further Reading…Meadow Plankton
“Meadow plankton” is a term given to the myriads of insects and other invertebrates that can be gathered by sweeping a net through tall grass in fields and in overgrown areas along roads, farm edges, parks, etc. These creatures can also be fed to smaller reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Please look for my future article on this topic.

Until then, a partial species list of insects that might be encountered in a typical temperate zone meadow, along with other information, is available on the website of the Invertebrate Conservation Trust.


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.


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