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Surinam Toads (Pipa pipa) as Pets, Part III: Diet and Feeding Techniques


Surinam ToadSurinam toads are well known for their bizarre reproductive strategy (please see article below), unusual appearance, large size and unique habitats.  They make very interesting pets but, as most in the trade are wild-caught, present a few problems when first introduced into the aquarium.  Last time we took a look at establishing the new Surinam toad and helping it to make the adjustment to captive life (Surinam Toads (Pipa pipa) as Pets: Acclimating New Animals and Special Considerations).  Today I’ll take a look at their dietary needs.

A Live Food Specialist
Surinam toads will take live food (or food moved before them as if alive) only.  Their favorites are earthworms, blackworms and small fishes such as guppies, platys, swordtails, mollies, minnows and shiners.  Use goldfish no more than once each month, and vary the species fed as much as is possible.

Feeding Techniques and Cautions

You can leave fishes in with the frog, as it will likely feed only at night until it has acclimated.  Be sure to adjust the fishes to your aquarium’s water temperature (float bag for 20 minutes) so that the frogs do not contract Ick or other diseases that might be transmitted from stressed fishes (also, fishes are more likely to be consumed if they swim about normally).

When using earthworms, introduce them to the tank at night (foe newly acquired frogs).  Worms usually survive for 8 hours or so underwater, but add only 1 at first and make sure to remove it in the AM if uneaten.

As mentioned in Part I of this article, Surinam toads often swallow gravel while feeding and are best kept in bare-bottomed aquariums.  This is a special concern when using earthworms, which are taken right off the substrate, and blackworms, which burrow into it.  If you use substrate, avoid feeding blackworms and offer earthworms from a plastic feeding tong.

Introducing Canned Shrimp and Snails

Well-habituated Surinam toads will consume prawn and other non-living food items that are dropped so as to land directly in front of their mouths.  Start your frog off with live food, but after awhile try using canned shrimp and snails to provide dietary variety.

Composition of the Diet

I have kept and bred Surinam toads for a number of years using a diet comprised of approximately 75% fish (platys, guppies, mollies, minnows, shiners and occasional goldfish) and earthworms, with the balance of their food intake consisting of blackworms and shrimp.

Further Reading
Please see Breeding A Skin-Brooding Amphibian: the Surinam Toad (Pipa pipa)  to read about captive reproduction of this fascinating animal.

You can learn about the other aquatic species in the family to which this frog belongs (Pipidae) at



Surinam Toads (Pipa pipa) as Pets: Acclimating New Animals and Special Considerations – Part 2

Click: Surinam Toads (Pipa pipa) as Pets: Acclimating New Animals and Special Considerations – Part 1, to read the first part of this article.

Arranging Shelters and Hiding Spots
Give the frog as much cover as possible – plastic plants with weighted bases and others secured around rock ornaments or otherwise held at the bottom of the aquarium are best. The frogs will push beneath the plants and hide. They seem to prefer this to caves, and in fact rarely enter enclosed shelters in the manner of African clawed frogs.

However, Surinam toads will shelter under driftwood if the wood is arranged to provide an overhanging ledge as opposed to a discrete cave. Piling a few pieces atop one another usually does the trick, and adds a nice touch to the aquarium’s décor as well.

When you first acquire your frog, do not use an aquarium light, and never turn the room light on when the room is very dark…the shock of the sudden glare would be very stressful. A group of frogs I received recently for a public exhibit were so shy that I needed to cover the aquarium with dark material for 2 weeks…if you do likewise, be sure to remove the covers slowly so as not to startle the frog.

Once your pet has acclimated to captivity you can use a light…just be sure to utilize real or artificial floating plants  and the shelters described above to cut down on light levels. Surinam toads are nocturnal – even by day the turbid waters in which they dwell filter out a good deal of sunlight.

Filtration and Water Quality
You’ll need an effective filter, but take care to adjust the water flow so that it does not move the frog about. Although they are powerful swimmers, Surinam toads do not take well to strong currents.

Partial water changes (20-50% every 1-4 weeks, depending upon filtration) are vital to maintaining good water quality. Use a test kit to check your ammonia levels frequently. In common with other aquatic amphibians, Surinam toads excrete wastes in a highly toxic state. High levels of ammonia will cause them to cease feeding, and eventually to expire. Bear in mind that the waste products are largely comprised of liquids and will not be visible. Be sure to de-chlorinate all water used in the aquarium.

Fungus, Injuries and Parasites
Check the skin for grey or white areas, either of which might indicate fungus, and also for injuries…these frogs do not ship well, and often arrive in poor condition. Please write in for suggested treatments if you observe any unusual marks, scratches or discolored skin.

I sometimes treat wild caught Surinam toads for parasites following a fecal test or cloacal swab, but am hesitant to suggest this as a necessary precaution – amphibian medicine is not, to say the least, an “exact science”. However, it’s something to consider if your frog refuses to feed or experiences other difficulties…please write in if you would like to explore this option further.

Further Reading
Please see Breeding a Skin-Brooding Amphibian: the Surinam Toad (Pipa pipa)  to read about my first experience in breeding this fascinating animal.

You can watch a captive Surinam toad feeding below:

(Note the frog’s backward “shoveling” motions with the rear legs. This is how they push their way below plants and bottom debris).

Feeding Surinam toads can be a bit tricky as well, but is a very interesting endeavor (please see video above). I’ll provide some suggestions that have worked for me (or, rather, my frogs!) next time.

Surinam Toads (Pipa pipa) as Pets: Acclimating New Animals and Special Considerations – Part 1

You’ll need to search long and hard to find a frog more bizarre than South America’s Surinam toad. Large and flat, with a pointed head and star-shaped sensory organs tipping the fingers, this tongue-less aquatic beast broods tadpoles below the skin of its back….need I say more?

“Handle With Care”
Surinam ToadSurinam toads make wonderful aquarium subjects, but a bit of special care and planning are necessary if one is to succeed with them. Although captive breeding is possible (I wrote about this recently, please see below), it is not common; hence most of the animals available in the trade are wild-caught adults.

Surinam toads seem to be gaining in popularity lately…I’ve had several questions concerning newly acquired animals posed recently, and so thought this a good time to go into the topic a bit further.

Stress and Wild-Caught Frogs
Surinam toads collected as adults have lived in my collection for over 12 years, but most wild caught individuals presented some problems when first obtained. With their permanent, upward-directed stares and relative immobility, these frogs seem so “expressionless” that it’s hard to imagine their being stressed…but internally a great deal is going on.

They are quite sensitive to change – a wild caught frog will have been through a series of traumas by the time it reaches your tank, and will usually not feed until it feels secure and out of danger (i.e. able to hide). Stress is usually very difficult to detect in amphibians, but do not be misled – it is as serious a problem for frogs as for a high strung bird (or us!).

Avoiding Injuries
Until the animal adjusts to its new surroundings, you should secure a towel or other material between the screen top and the water’s surface, as the frog will likely jump at night and may injure its snout against the screening. Be sure to secure the top with screen clips; these will hold the towel in place and prevent an escape.

The water temperature should be maintained at 78-79F. Be sure to adjust your frog to any temperature changes slowly…gradually mix new water in with old, if necessary. Dramatic temperature changes will stress the immune system and can easily lead to some of the same health problems (i.e. Ick outbreaks) as affect tropical fish in similar circumstances.

Aquarium Size
A large, deep aquarium is best. Sometimes these frogs do fine in shallow water, but they are more comfortable in deep tanks – during field research I’ve observed them being collected from 3-4 feet of water. An adult will require an aquarium of at least 20 gallons capacity, with a 30 gallon tank being preferable (a 30 gallon can house a pair as well).

Surinam toads have a very vigorous feeding response, and quite frequently swallow gravel along with their prey. It is therefore safest to house them in a bare-bottomed aquarium. Despite living over mud, sand and gravel in the wild, captive Surinam toads are very prone to impactions. I’ve observed several on autopsy that were packed full of sand, and another that swallowed a stone which seemed barely able to fit in its mouth.

Check back on Friday for the conclusion of this article.

Breeding a Skin-Brooding Amphibian: the Surinam Toad (Pipa pipa)

Surinam ToadThe bizarre Surinam toad needs little introduction to amphibian enthusiasts…their unique strategy of brooding the eggs below the skin of the female’s back has rendered the species quite well-known. Yet, when I received a group of adults in 1986, I found that little had been published on their husbandry, and the last recorded captive breeding seemed to have occurred in the 1950’s.

Courtship and Fertilization of the Eggs
One female was in breeding condition, as evidenced by the circular, swollen ring about her cloaca and the dark brood patch on her back. Several males were giving forth their metallic, clicking breeding calls, so I chose the most robust of the group and placed him with the female.

Surinam toads swim in a series of circular loops, from the bottom to the top of the aquarium, when in amplexus, and will rarely be successful in fertilizing the eggs unless provided with a tank of at least 48 inches in depth. As the pair reaches the top of their loop, the female lays an egg, which is (on the next loop) fertilized and manipulated by the male onto her back’s spongy brood patch.

My Observations of Amplexus and Birth
Amplexus in the frogs I observed lasted for nearly 3 days, which I have subsequently found is the norm. The pair “shivered” in unison on many occasions, but I was not able to see the “bobbing” motions described by others. The photo accompanying this article shows what might be the first captive breeding (this while I was working at the Bronx Zoo) in many years. Within 24 hours of this photo, the skin on the female’s back swelled and completely covered the eggs.

After egg-laying, I removed the male. The female fed as usual. I did not offer blackworms, as these voracious little beasts burrowed into the soft skin of her brood patch at one point…talk about a horrid sight (I was able to wash them away easily)!

The young began to pop their heads out (the sight of 74 pointed little heads protruding from their mother’s back was yet another vision not for the squeamish!) in 100 days, and swam off on their own within a day or so. They averaged ½ to ¾ inches long, and fed readily upon chopped blackworms, brine shrimp and guppy fry. Sexual maturity was reached in 3 years.

Amazing Healing Abilities
The females back appeared “healed” within 24 hours of giving birth, but remained roughened in appearance for several weeks. Amphibians are increasingly being found to produce compounds of great medicinal value…I wouldn’t be surprised if the incredible skin trauma undergone by female Surinam toads is somehow tempered by a chemical that could be of use to people.

A wonderful video of baby Surinam toads emerging from their mother’s back is posted below:

Baby Surinam Toads emerging from their mother’s back

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