Monday, August 30, 2010

Invasion of the Fire Bellied Toads (Bombina orientalis)

A few weeks ago, Brendan, our friend Harry and I drove over to Hamburg, PA to attend the Northwestern Berks Reptile Show. I wrote about it here. When I wrote about it back then, I did not expect Brendan to take care of the 9 Oriental Fire Bellied Toads (which I will mostly just call Fire Bellied Toads for the rest of this post) he picked up at the show. Yep - 9 of em - and as far as I am concrrned that is an invasion force when it comes to frogs entering my home. Not too long after he had them set up in a tank, my fears were realized a bit when, a few of them escaped. I think we are down to 6 of them now. Of the other three, I found only one and that was pretty much mummified when I found it; I suppose the others became likewise long before now. Well, after that first escape, he made sure to keep the enclosure closed tightly. I don't take such things lightly because, especially in the case of amphibians, it often means the animal will die; so I read Brendan the riot act. There have not been any more escapes. Heaven knows, I am familiar with the ability of most reptiles and amphibians when it comes to them being escape artists, just read my previous blog post two entries back from this one.

My biggest fear though was that Brendan would not care for these new acquisitions properly as in the feeding and cleaning department. So far, he has pretty much proved me wrong. I say pretty much because he has, once or twice, let them go a few days too long without feeding (which is not terrible if they are healthy but they should eat at least every other to every three days), and at least twice he has let the tank go without changing the water to the point where it started to smell a bit foul. This is supposedly not great for amphibians as they absorb a lot of chemicals through their skin but I have seen amphibians thrive in some pretty foul water in nature, they are fairly tough. Luckily there were no apparent ill effects for his toads. They are doing very well overall, that is those that did not escape. He has gotten them a small filter for their tank and he seems to have a sort of cleaning schedule - changing the water a couple times a week. As for the feeding, he usually gets them crickets at least a couple to three times per week and dumps them all in their tank at once each time. The toads eat and some cricket survivors live on for a couple to a few more days, that is until the toads get them sooner or later. Then Brendan gets them more crickets. He also feeds them wax worms and has put a few small guppies into the water area of their tank. We have seen them dive in and gobble up guppies a couple of times now, though it only seems like one or three of the toads are adept at this for now. Under Brendan's care, with very little prodding or help from me (of course I paid for the filter) they are thriving. When he got them they were mostly puny, now they are pretty much fairly plump (as in healthy not fat).

As you can see from the pictures, Brendan's toads are of the variety with a fairly bright green back. Some other fire bellied toads are pretty drab brown. All of these toads lack the visible frog ear known as the tympanic membrane and they have truly weird somewhat triangular pupils. They all have fairly warty skin on their backs, and a few warty areas on their ventral surfaces. All of them though have a pretty bright red or reddish orange bellies (some have yellow bellies) and you can see the red belly in two of the pics. As I have heard, when a creature in nature has bright colors on its underside as do these toads, it is a warning for other creatures not to eat them. These toads reportedly can secrete toxins from their skin and that warning would be well taken if this is correct. Personally, I have never seen these secretions though I have handled a lot of these toads. (It is supposedly milky-white so it would show up.)
With frogs and toads, with bright undersides like these, when they are threatened they often arch their backs and expose the brightly colored bellies. I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of these toads, in captivity and only have seen a fire belly toad exhibit this behavior once or twice as best I can recall. Maybe they do it in the wild more often and maybe not. I would have guessed they would display this in captivity more often if truly for defense since they take other defensive actions as jumping or darting away and diving under water. Regardless of why they have them, I will say the red bellies make them look pretty neat.

Fire Bellied Toads are also known by their scientific name Bombina orientalis. As the name implies, they are from Asia (thus the 'orient' in the name). They are indigenous to northeastern China, the Japanese islands of Tsushima and Kiushiu, and the Khabarovsk and Primorye regions in southeastern Russia (1). All areas where it gets warm to hot in summer and blue-balls cold in winter, and man oh man that is cold. Note, I said in areas where it gets warm to hot in the summer, that is relatively speaking. These toads are often found at elevations where it warms up in summer but also where it still remains fairly cool in the summer relative to warmer areas of their range. It seems these toads are well adapted to a variety of habitats - all close to bodies of water. They live in various landscapes such as mixed forests (coniferous and deciduous), non-mixed forests of either type just mentioned, meadows, agricultural land, and so forth. They can endure long periods on land as long as the area holds sufficient moisture to keep their skin damp but they do seem to prefer living in or very near to various types of bodies of freshwater. Those would include swift and slow running streams, ponds, lakes, swamps, springs, drainage ditches, and vernal puddles. At the end of summer, the species can be found on land at distances up to few hundred meters from water.

Coming from an area with a temperate climate, they need to hibernate throughout the colder months. They hibernate up to 6 or 7 months out of the year coming out of hibernation in April or May to breed soon after in late spring through the summer. Once out of hibernation they begin to feed voraciously on worms, small insects and other arthropods, both aquatic and non-aquatic. They are opportunistic feeders and as can be seen some will take small fish, at least in captivity. All that feeding gets them ready for breeding and females breed through the season, laying up to about 250 eggs. The young hatch out in the water as tadpoles - hatching begins about 10 days to 2 weeks after the eggs are deposited. They then metamorphose over the next couple of months. After that, if they can avoid natural dangers and find enough food, they can live upwards of 20 years. This probably means that well cared for captive specimens could live at least several years beyond that. Jeesh - toads forever.

As far as keeping them in captivity, they are a commonly kept pet here and in Europe. Most of the ones available are probably wild caught specimens and this would likely account for many of them being pretty skinny when you see them in pet shops or at reptile shows. If wild caught, the possibility of them having internal parasites is fairly high but I must point that even skinny ones tend to fatten up nicely once fed regularly. This could either mean they can tolerate parasites (since they recuperate so well if actually parasitized) or that they were not parasitized and just not fed properly while in transit and lost weight because of that. I tend to think it may be both. As for parasites, if they carry those with an indirect as opposed to direct life cycle, it is quite possible they evacuate them all before too long and wind up parasite free. This would all need more study but would make some interesting work for a herpetologist.

Now that I have gotten some moms and dads on the alert about parasites in these toads, allow me to say they make great pets - the toads not the parasites - especially if you acquire captive bred toads. While many Fire Bellied Toads are still imported, they are becoming more and more available as captive bred. C/B animals are far less likely to have any sort of parasite load and are probably also much less likely to be diseased as could be wild caught animals. Fire-Bellied Toads are no exception, so if you want some, try to acquire captive bred toads.

Oriental Fired Bellied Toads are pretty tolerant of environmental conditions in captivity. They can tolerate fairly cool temperatures in the high 60s to warmer ones in the low to low-mid 80s (Fahrenheit). They usually do not require additional heat if kept at average room temperatures and may require air conditioning in the summer if your place gets pretty hot. Mine have always been kept in our basement at temps that are usually between about 67 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit, they have thrived at those temps.

These toads do not require special lighting but if any live plants are used inside their enclosure then you probably want to use florescent lighting for them (lights optimal for plant growth are available). If you use an incandescent bulb be careful not to allow it to heat up their enclosure too much, it could kill them. If it gets too warm while using one, then decrease the wattage of bulb you are using.

They can thrive in either an aquatic set-up a semi-aquatic set-up or a damp terrarium. In my experience, they tolerate chlorinated water fairly well if not excellently. I usually use water I have dechlorinated either by allowing to sit in a bucket overnight or by use of chemicals but have sometimes forgotten to do either will no ill effects. I do not think it is the chlorine in the water itself that directly causes the problems for amphibians but rather the fact that chlorine so readily reacts with other chemicals and minerals to create toxins. So it is probably best to dechlorinate it whenever you can. I strongly recommend you do this in summer; maybe it is just me but I would swear I can smell the chlorine in my local water supply in the summer and usually cannot in the colder months of the year. I am guessing they increase the chlorine in the water during the summer because the warmer temps probably increase the risk of bacteria in the water.

As for size of their enclosure, I have kept up to about a half dozen of them in a 10 gallon aquarium. I prefer the aquatic or semi-aquatic set-ups for them and give them a water area that is only about 6 inches deep at most. Usually, I provide a water area that is about 3 to 4 inches deep and I change the water about every 2 to 3 days, with an area on which they can haul themselves completely out of the water. I either use something like a smooth rock or a brick placed in the enclosure, or I may use a piece of something that floats like decorative cork bark. Better yet, my son has them in a semi-aquatic set-up with a relatively small water area maybe 8" long x 6" wide x 3" deep that is filtered by a mini-submersible filter. The rest of the enclosure has a land area that is pretty much always damp. It consists of piled up gravel, a piece of drift wood and a fake piece of drift wood to hold the gravel in place, some long cut sphagnum moss, planted bamboo shoots, a half of a coconut husk for a hiding spot and a fake rock background (made out of foam). The enclosure itself is a glass vivarium with 2 front-side glass doors and screen top. Make sure whatever type of enclosure you use is escape proof. These toads are good climbers and can climb glass especially in the corner of the tank, and ours even climb up the fake rock background. (Brendan's 3 escapees got out of a temporary tank on which the lid was not fastened properly.)

As far as feeding them goes, that is pretty easy. They will eat about anything small enough to swallow that crawls close enough to them. This included crickets, wax worms, small earthworms or trout worms. (You can cut the worms to small enough sizes and as long as the worm part wriggles it is fair game) and as I said above some will eat small fish. Crickets and wax worms are almost always readily available at pet shops nowadays. Try to feed them a variety of prey items. Crickets are okay a lot of the time but much better if supplemented with waxworms and other food items on a regular basis. Some pill bugs from your garden might also be relished, Brendan's gobble em down. Small earthworms are easy enough to find but be wary of those, or any insects, from a garden recently treated with insecticides or fertilizers. Trout worms, available at tackle shops and even at Wal-Mart, are another good choice. Keep their diet varied for best results.
We feed ours about every other day although feeding them daily is okay. As I said above sometimes we feed them a little less often but place enough crickets in the enclosure to then last them a few days. Be careful of the size of cricket you feed them, keep them pretty small. Large adult crickets might wind up preying on the toads. If you keep these guys in an aquatic set up, always supply something on which the toads and the food items can stay on to keep out of the water. Most of these bugs drown easily. Remove any dead food items from the tank as soon as possible to avoid a stinky mess; if you keep it clean you will have healthy and happy toads and stay happy yourself. Speaking of cleanliness, change the filter medium when needed. Also change about 1/2 the water weekly, with dechlorinated water.

As far as these toads being pets, I do not handle mine except maybe when cleaning their enclosures (which I give a complete take-down and cleaning about 2 or 3 times a year and smaller cleanings weekly) or when checking them for health purposes. These toads are not really slimy critters, but do seem slightly slimy, and while I am not averse to being slimed, it does a frog or toad (and these are very frog-like toads) no good to have this protective coating removed or to become contaminated by oils and salts on your skin. Additionally, if they actually do secrete toxins, you might want to avoid handling them more than needed to avoid the risk of adverse effects from the toxins. In that regard you may only want to handle them while wearing appropriate water-proof gloves. You may also want to make sure that young children and pets can not get to these frogs just in case those alleged toxins are powerful enough to cause harm if ingested. Young children and pets love to put things in their mouths. Always remember to wash up after handling any pet, especially those living in a damp, aquatic or semiaquatic set-up.

All in all, their care is pretty easy, they are easy on the budget, easy on the eyes and their vivarium or aquarium can be a piece of living furniture in your home. Oh, did I forget to mention, besides adding color they can also add some sound to your surroundings. They sometimes chirp and trill but not much in my experience, then again we keep em in the basement and when I hear them up on the 1st and 2nd floors they are not too loud. Breeding season probably gets the most noise out of em - typical of most critters that can sound off - isn't it!

All the best,
Glenn B


Sergius L. Kuzmin (ipe51 AT, Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. 1999-09-30
Edited by Kellie Whittaker (2007-12-07)

Natural History And Captive Care References:

Personal Experience (Please note: my advice for keeping these is based upon my personal experience in keeping these toads. That will either be in agreement or disagreement from advice given by others. Any references or info I give are supplied to guide you to help you to find the best way you can care for your own Fire Bellied Toads and are not meant to be the end all be all of toad keeping advice. My supplying a reference or references does not indicate my agreement with the information supplied in them and my giving advice does not necessarily mean that is the best way to keep them - but is merely an example of what has worked for me.)

Breeding References: