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Tadpoles for Beginners
Courtesy of the Tablelands Frog Club

Caring for a few tadpoles and watching them turn into frogs (metamorphose) is a fascinating and rewarding activity for young and old alike. It is also becoming more useful for scientific reasons, too, because much is still not known about frogs. and many species are declining before our eyes.
Tadpoles are generally easy to keep, but there are some simple guidelines to follow so that your tadpoles will be healthy and change into frogs successfully. They are:

  • clean water 
  • suitable container 
  • food 
  • a watchful eye during metamorphosis

The Right Water

Tadpoles have gills so they need clean water just like your aquarium fish. If you plan to get some tadpoles, you'll need to get your water ready before you bring the tadpoles home.
Do not use water straight from your tap! At least not right away. There are two ways you can prepare the tap water for your tadpoles:
add a water conditioner from your aquarium shop which instantly ages water; or:
let the tap water sit in an uncovered, non-metallic container for at least 3 to 4 days first.
Tap water contains chemicals which will kill your tadpoles. Letting it sit for a few days allows these chemicals to lose their harmful qualities. If you plan to keep tadpoles, it is a good idea to store aged water in several very clean plastic milk containers (put the cap back on the bottle after the water has aged). Keep a steady supply of aged water ready for water changes.

Once you have your tadpoles happily feeding in your tank, foam box or other chosen container, you'll need to watch for fouling of the water.

Tadpoles + food + droppings = ammonia

When ammonia builds up in the water, the tadpoles will start looking sluggish. If left in the same water, the tadpoles will start to die. Once the water starts to look like weak tea or is cloudy, it's time to change the water. You can also buy an ammonia test kit at your aquarium shop which will tell you exactly when the water needs to be changed. How often you'll have to do this depends on the size container you use and how many tadpoles you put in it.

When changing the water, gently scoop up the tadpoles using a soft net. Be careful not to bang or scratch the tadpoles. They have soft skin and damage during handling can result in deformities when the tadpoles turn into frogs.

A Nice Home

The best containers are those which allow you to see the tadpoles and the water clarity easily and are easy to handle for cleaning. Short, wide containers are better than tall, narrow ones. Do not use any container which has metal in it.
The plastic 'pet tanks' sold in shops are a very good choice:
they have snap on lids to keep the. tadpoles in and other things out;

  • you can sit and watch the tadpoles easily;
  • you can position the tank where it will get limited sunlight sometime during the day; and
  • the snap on lid will be useful when the tadpoles metamorph.

Placing some fallen leaves from a nearby creek on the bottom will give the tadpoles a place to hide. If the leaves have some algae growing on them, the. tadpoles will eat the algae.
For any kind of tadpole which might take a long time to morph or is large and 'messy', a proper aquarium setup will be easier to maintain in the long run and allows less handling of tire tadpoles. The tank can be cleaned once a month; a 1/4 tank water change can be done once a week; a filter can be added to help keep the water clean; and aquarium plants can be added to boost oxygen levels and provides food and shelter.

Do not use celery leaves. Whatever plants you decide to try, make sure that they are not toxic and always boil or freeze them first. There's a saying: 'if in doubt, leave it out'.
Protein is very easy to provide because tadpoles will eat bottom feeder fish food tablets. Many types are available at your pet shop but a good one is Tetra Pleco-Min 5 Star formula which contains a high protein algae called Spirulina. You can also provide a small piece of cooked egg yolk but this will foul the water - only use egg yolk the day before you plan to change all the water in the tank. (Bread will also foul the water.) You can tie a string around a small piece of cooked meat or chicken bone and suspend this just at the top of the water.
There should always be some food in  the container but don't put in more than what the tadpoles will eat in a day or two.

The Critical Time: Metamorphosis

When your see arms on your tadpoles, they are fast approaching the delicate stage of timing into a frog. When your new frogs leave the water, they will still have a full tail and they can jump. The tail will shrink and be gone in one or two days.
Although most of the tadpoles I've kept simply climb up the side of the tank when they leave the water, not all tadpoles will do this. You should put something in the container which the metamorphs can climb onto. It should start under the water and stick out of the top and it should be fixed so it doesn't move. This could be a fat stick or a rock - whatever you can find.
Experience is the best teacher when it comes to metamorphs. But the most important thing when a metamorph emerges from the water is that it should be removed from the tadpole tank immediately. Once the new frog has started using it's lungs to breathe, it is often unable to use the gills anymore. If the new frog falls back into the water, it will often drown.
If you plan to keep your new frogs for a short time (see regulations below), you should have a small plastic net tank ready to place the frogs in. Keep this tank moist for the first few days with a sprayer of aged water and place a jar cap on the bottom filled with aged water. The depth of the water should be no more than the frog's height. Add some leaf litter and/or a small piece of curved bark for the frog to hide under. The new frog will not start to eat until its tail has been completely absorbed. Once the tail is gone, trap some tiny flies (such as drysophila, those red-eyed flies seen around rotting fruit) and put them into the tank. A piece of thin cloth stretched under the lid will keep the flies inside. Build up the frogs' weight for a week and then release them in the same place where you collected the tadpoles.

Tadpoles and the authorities

If you are keeping tadpoles and plan to release the frogs within 7 days of metamorphosis, you do not need to get a licence. You can still keep 2 of the frogs permanently (up to 4 species) without a licence There is no limit to the number of tadpoles you can have but it will be far easier to maintain healthy tadpoles if you only collect a small number don't collect every tadpole you see (unless that habitat is about to be destroyed!)
If you plan to keep more than 2 frogs of any species or more than 4 species, you will need to apply for a licence. Once you apply for a licence, you cannot have any wild caught frogs or tadpoles in your collection. All your frogs and tadpoles must come from other licensed holders and you will be unable to collect any more tadpoles from the wild yourself. If you really want to apply for a licence you can contact the Wildlife Section of the Environment Department. Or you can write to the author of this fact sheet to ask your questions privately and confidentially (author's address is at the end).

The techniques described in this fact sheet are not the only way to keep tadpoles. Many people have raised tadpoles in old tubs and ponds in the backyard or foam boxes on the veranda or in tanks in the house as I've described. If you have tried different ways with success or even if you have had difficulties, jot down your experiences and send them into your frog club newsletter to share with others or receive answers.

Happy tadpoles to you!

Prepared for the Tablelands Frog Club, Inc. by Deborah Pergolotti, P.O. Box 2731, Cairns, Qld 4870 
Tablelands Frog Club Inc. Homepage

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