by Kurt Kunze, Justin Reed and John P. Clare
Description & Natural History
There are very few pet stores where you won't find fire-bellied toads for sale. Generally, this means Bombina orientalis, the Oriental or Chinese Fire-Bellied Toad, the species most often referred to as simply “Fire-Bellied Toad”. It is a primitive frog of the family Bombinatoridae, suborder Archaeobatrachia, and a native of northeastern Asia.
|Family: || ||Bombinatoridae (Fire-Bellied Toads) |
|Origin: ||Northeastern China, Korea, and the Khabarovsk and Primorye regions of Russia |
|IUCN (Red List) Status: ||Least Concern (LC) |
|CITES Status: ||No Listing |
|Adult Snout-to-Vent Length: ||38 - 50 mm (1.5 - 2 inches) |
|Lifespan: ||Up to 20 years |
|Captive Difficulty: ||Beginner |
|Breeding Difficulty: ||Intermediate |
|Activity: ||Diurnal, but active at any hour of the day |
|Temperature: ||Day 16-24 °C (68-75 °F), with a basking area at no more than 26 °C / 80 °F |
|Food: ||Crickets, mealworms, waxworms, and other insects |
There are 8 species in the genus Bombina, all of which are semi-aquatic and possess tubercles (wart-like bumps) that cover the skin dorsally. They also possess triangular pupils. Only 4 of the 8 species of Bombina are seen in captivity.
- Bombina bombina, the European Fire-Bellied Toad, is brownish gray to very dark gray in color, almost black, with darker spots dorsally. Some individuals are green with darker green spots. Ventrally, they are gray to black with orange spots or patches. An albino form of this species is now being offered in the pet trade.
- B. variegata, the Yellow-Bellied Toad, another European native, is brown to olive in color, with little to no dark spots on its dorsum (the back). Some specimens have patches of green. The venter of this toad is orangey-yellow with gray spots.
- B. maxima, the Giant Fire-Bellied Toad, is brown dorsally. It has very pronounced tubercles on its dorsum, which make it very distinct from the rest of the Bombina species discussed in this article. Ventrally (on the underside), this toad is very similar to B. bombina – gray with yellow patches.
- B. orientalis, the Chinese or Oriental Fire-Bellied Toad, is bright green to dark olive brown, with black spots dorsally. Some darker individuals may have green patches on their backs as well. The tubercles of this species are pronounced and can be quite rough. The underside of wild caught specimens is best described as scarlet in color, with numerous black dots. Captive bred specimens frequently have a more orange belly, usually due to a lack of pigment molecules or pigment precursor molecules in their diet.
While written primarily for the Oriental Fire-Bellied Toad, Bombina orientalis, the care and breeding information presented here is equally applicable to the 3 other species of Bombina available in captivity. Coincidentally, it’s also relatively valid for the care of the North American Cricket Frog species complex, Acris crepitans.
The coloration of these toads warns most predators of their toxicity, but unfortunately these bright warning colors are only found on the venter (underside) of Bombina toads. This type of warning coloration is known as “aposematic”. To present a warning to a would-be predator, the fire-bellied toad must arch its back downward, raising its head and limbs upward, exposing its bright hues. It will hold this pose until the offending animal gets the message and moves on. This defense posture is known as the unken reflex, which comes from the German word for toad, “unke”. This behavior is observed in several frogs and toads, as well as some salamanders, such as the Rough-Skinned Newt, Taricha granulosa.
The toxicity of these toads dictates that you should never handle a fire-bellied toad without washing your hands afterward. Unlike poison dart frogs who get their poisons from their food in the wild but are relatively harmless in captivity, fire-bellied toads manufacture their own poisons. Their skin secretions can cause severe discomfort if you were to touch your eyes accidentally after handling a fire-bellied toad.
B. maxima can be sexed by looking at the webbing between the toes. The male of the species will have webbing that is more pronounced and completely spans the distance between the toes in an almost straight line. In females the webbing is less pronounced and arches in between the toes.
Sexing B. orientalis is more of a challenge, as the method for sexing B. maxima is not reliable since the webbing in both genders is similar. The genders are very difficult to distinguish outside of the breeding season. You may not be able to identify a female out of breeding season, but there are two methods to identify adult males. The first is the call, which sounds like a soft moan or the muffled barking of a dog, and the other is his general behavior, because most males will regularly engage their fellow terrarium residents in amplexus (the mating embrace). Without the proper conditioning of both genders, which involves a cooling period, nothing will come of this behavior.
In the wild, B. orientalis inhabits mixed temperate forest (mixed forest is made up of deciduous and coniferous trees). It is found in or near the stagnant waters of lakes, ponds, swampy bush lands, springs, ditches, and puddles. It usually hibernates on land, but some do so in water, from September or October, to April or May. Common den sites are rotting logs, thick leaf litter, and piles of stones.
Breeding occurs in the spring with arrival of the warm rains of April and May, but can continue into mid-August. Males develop small, black-tipped tubercles on the back and upper surfaces of the hind legs, while the legs of females remain relatively smooth. The males also develop nuptial pads on the inner surfaces of their front legs. They call to attract a mate, but the sound is quite subdued because males lack the external vocal sac(s) necessary to amplify their calls. Unreceptive females, or males that have been grasped in error, can give a trilling release call.
A pair of Oriental Fire-Bellied Toads, Bombina orientalis, in the mating embrace "amplexus",
preparing to breed. Photo ©2010 Justin Reed
Amplexus, the term used to describe the clasping of a female frog by a male frog, is inguinal, meaning the male grasps the female towards the rear of the body, just in front of the hind legs. Most frog and toad species engage in axillary amplexus, where the male grasps the female just behind the front legs. Inguinal amplexus is considered a more primitive or less advanced behavior than axillary amplexus.
Females can lay over 250 eggs, which are laid singly or small clusters. The eggs are attached to aquatic plants, rocks, and aquatic debris. The eggs hatch in under a week. The tadpoles are omnivorous, and they reach metamorphosis in 4 to 8 weeks. Unlike most frogs and toads, Bombina toadlets will prey on small terrestrial invertebrates even before they have fully resorbed their tails.
Breeding vivarium for Oriental Fire-Bellied Toads, Bombina orientalis. A similar setup,
with less water, would make a suitable terrarium for maintaining these toads outside
of the breeding season. Photo ©2010 Justin Reed
Toads of the genus of Bombina are semi-aquatic and their housing should reflect this. An appropriate enclosure should consist of a significant aquatic section with islands or a dedicated terrestrial section. A 40 L (10 US gallon) aquarium could comfortably accommodate 5 or 6 toads. The enclosure can be elaborate or simple, as long as these basic requirements are met.
The most basic enclosure consists of a tank that is flooded with about 5 cm (2 inches) of water, with a floating island (polystyrene foam/styrofoam, for example). The water used should be tap water that has been treated with a dechlorinator (such as Amquel or Aquasafe), aged tap water (provided your local water does not contain chloramines), or spring water. Polystyrene foam trays are often used to package vegetables and other food produce at most supermarkets. Do not use trays that have been used to package meat, as they might introduce harmful bacteria to the enclosure. You may need to poke a hole or two in the tray in order to allow the escape of any trapped air, otherwise your “island” may sit too high in the water to allow the toads ease of access. Of course, polystyrene isn’t very pleasing to the eye, and other cheap alternatives include “turtle docks” sold in pet stores, pieces of cork bark, or aquarium-appropriate rocks like petrified wood, that have been stacked to form islands.
An aquarium filter can be used to maintain water quality. Examples include sponge filters, internal/submersible power filters, hang-on filters and external canister filters. If you use a filter, bear in mind that they can produce a strong flow of water and that this can be stressful to your still water-loving toads. Therefore, make sure to reduce the flow as much as possible, and if you use a powerful filter, consider employing a spray bar to spread out the flow of water, otherwise you may have a mini river instead of a mini pond!
A newly-laid egg of the Oriental Fire-Bellied Toad, Bombina orientalis.
Photo ©2010 Justin Reed
A bare aquarium with a polystyrene island and a filter is not what most people would consider aesthetically pleasing, but you can expand on these basic vivarium elements. For example, aquarium gravel can be used as a substrate, and you can also use it to make a sloping beach between an aquatic section and a terrestrial section. Incidentally, if you do use gravel, either use aquarium-safe sand, or use gravel that is too big to be swallowed accidentally. The enclosure can be planted with artificial or real plants. Good candidate aquatic plants for these toads should be robust to tolerate their climbing and boisterous activity. Some appropriate species include Java Moss (Vesicularia dubyana), Canadian Pondweed (Elodea canadensis), Egeria densa, and Salvinia (Salvinia natans). Terrestrial plants are liable to get a good soaking unless you carefully construct a separate land section. Plants that are not averse to having their roots submerged in water are a good idea. A commonly available example is Pothos (Epipremnum aureum).
Another approach to having both land and water sections is the “false bottom”. Instructions for building a false bottom can be found in the Red-Eyed Leaf Frog article. One of our members here at Frog Forum, Johnny Farnen, has some great terrarium ideas, including a great photograph of a divided aquarium, where he has siliconed a piece of sloping glass in place and then siliconed pebbles to it.
Lighting is not essential, but if you wish to grow real plants, lighting of a suitable spectrum is advised. “Daylight” spectrum bulbs are appropriate, and these are usually marked by color temperature – 6500 or 6700 K bulbs are the best, but 5000 K will suffice. These toads are diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day. In the wild, they likely experience some Ultraviolet “B” (UVB) light, but unlike reptiles there is no direct evidence that these amphibians require it. These toads are known to bask, but this is more for heat than for any light requirement. A suitable photoperiod is 12 hours per day and this can be accomplished using a plug-in timer, which will also come in handy for modifying the photoperiod for breeding the toads (see later in this article).
No matter how you set up your fire-bellied toad enclosure, it will need an appropriate lid/cover. These toads require ventilation, so a screen cover, such as those sold for terrariums, is appropriate. A wet B. orientalis is a fairly adept climber and will not last long outside its enclosure without access to water, so ensure that the lid is escape-proof.
Provide hiding places for your toads. This will help them feel more secure in their artificial habitat. Pieces of cork bark, artificial caves, and even short pieces of PVC piping can be added to the enclosure for this purpose, and good planting decisions can provide extra, more natural hiding places.
No matter which design choices you make, ensure your enclosure is kept clean. Weekly partial water changes and spot cleaning of feces constitute a good maintenance regimen. By maintaining healthy conditions you can avoid diseases such as "red-leg", which may be brought on by poor conditions.
A healthy tadpole of the Oriental Fire-Bellied Toad, Bombina orientalis.
Photo ©2010 John P. Clare / FrogForum.net
Dealing with New Animals & Preventing Disease
Purchasing captive bred animals not only lowers the chance of your toads carrying diseases and parasites, but also reduces the market for wild caught animals, and as a result helps to reduce the numbers collected from the wild. However, acquiring captive bred Bombina orientalis is much easier said than done. Most specimens available in the pet trade originate in the wild, and the majority of these toads are wild caught in Korea. Some dedicated enthusiasts are breeding these toads in captivity, but fire-bellied toads are abundant in the wild and, sadly, it is cheaper for pet stores to import wild caught animals.
As with all wild caught amphibians, it is important to treat your new toads for gastrointestinal parasites with metronidazole and later on, with fenbendazole. These are both anti-parastic drugs – metronidazole, also known as flagyl, kills protozoans, and fenbendazole (Panacur) kills parasitic worms. Each dose should be administered at a minimum interval of 3 days. As with most drugs of this nature, a veterinarian should prescribe and administer animal medications.
You should, as soon as possible, make an appointment with your vet after acquiring new toads. Bring a fresh fecal sample that has not been exposed to water and is no more than 24 hours old. To acquire a suitable fecal sample, house the toad on white paper towels until it relieves itself. A suitably sized water bowl should be provided for the toad during this period, due to their semi-aquatic nature. Even after a viable sample has been collected and tested for parasites, the toad should remain in this setup until a second or even a third sample can be collected. After treatment, ideally you will want the very last sample to test negative for parasites.
If you already have some established fire-bellied toads or any other captive amphibians, any new toad(s) needs to be quarantined for a minimum of 30 days away from the other animals. If you can house the new toad(s) in a different room from the others, then do so. The reason for this is to prevent the spread of any diseases and parasites that are not immediately apparent.
To prevent the possible spread of disease, you should wear disposable gloves when handling the new toad or anything else with which it comes in contact. After putting on the gloves, while wearing them rinse your hands to remove any powder and chemical residue they may have, as both can be harmful to some amphibians. Dispose of the gloves after use and do not reuse them. Anything that comes into contact with the new animal must be sterilized before it can be used for your other animals.
A good sterilizing agent is a solution of bleach in water – a 10% bleach solution is recommended. After sterilizing objects, thoroughly rinse them with water before using them again. Large and awkward objects, such as tank furniture, wood, and cork bark, that can’t be readily sterilized with bleach, can be baked in an oven for an hour or two at 65 °C (150 °F). Pea gravel (make sure it is too big to be swallowed by your toads) can be boiled for a few minutes. With the last two methods, allow the items to cool before use.
Tadpole of the Oriental Fire-Bellied Toad, Bombina orientalis, with nearly fully
developed hind legs.
Photo ©2010 John P. Clare / FrogForum.net
Feeding Bombina orientalis isn't difficult. They will accept most feeder insects, including crickets, mealworms, waxworms, and bean weevils (also known as bean beetles). Food items should be no longer than the toad's head is wide. That being said, they can often tackle prey that is slightly larger.
Remember to gut-load feeder insects whenever possible, and to use vitamin and calcium dusting supplements. Make sure the calcium supplement has vitamin D3, so calcium can be properly absorbed - otherwise your toad might develop hypocalcaemia (calcium deficiency). Toads with this health problem can develop partial or complete paralysis of the hind limbs. An animal suffering from this illness has a poor chance of recovery and must be treated by a veterinarian.
Gut-loading should be carried out at least 12 hours prior to feeding your frogs. However, a 48-hour period is preferable. Items that would be beneficial in gut loading your feeder insects include carrots, sweet potatoes, apples, zucchini/courgettes, mustard or dandelion greens, collard greens, and commercial cricket gut-loading products. If using dandelion greens, it is best to acquire them from the produce section of your local supermarket, rather than your yard. Collecting your own may indirectly put your animals at risk to any fertilizers, pesticides or weed killers that have been used on the plants or in their vicinity.
One important vitamin that may need supplementation is vitamin A, and there are two ways to achieve this. One is to dust insects with a supplement that contains this vitamin. The other is to gut-load your feeder insects with vegetables that are rich in chemicals called carotenes, such as carrots (where the carrots get their pigment). Feeder insects will convert some of these chemicals to vitamin A and the carotenes themselves will help the toads maintain their bright red belly hues.
How often and how much you feed your toads is up to you but we recommend that you feed them once or twice a week, about 3 or 4 suitably sized crickets each.
There are reports that toads will eat floating turtle pellets. In our experience, only some will do so, and only if they are offered the pellets directly - when left floating in the water, the toads ignored them altogether. This was the case for all 3 brands of pellets that were tried: Tetra Reptomin, Omega One's Adult Turtle Sticks (which, oddly enough, are much smaller than Reptomin), and Jungle's Reptile Extra Anti-parasite Pellets. The first 2 were accepted, but the third was ignored. However, it is possible that the toads will eventually learn to eat floating turtle pellets.
While there are several approaches to breeding these toads, the most important requirement for breeding B. orientalis is a winter cool down period lasting at least 6 weeks.
One successful method involves placing the toads in a tupperware/plastic food container filled two thirds of the way with moist moss and then placing the container in a fridge. The temperature of the fridge should be 7-10 °C (45-50 °F). Six to eight weeks seems to be sufficient time to condition the toads using this approach. During this period the toads are fed once a week. When their time in the fridge is up, transfer them back to a tank that is kept within the normal temperature range (see the information box near the top of this article). After allowing the toads a few days to adjust to life outside the fridge, they should receive a heavy feeding regimen that consists of crickets four times a week, and waxworms once a week. This is an integral aspect of conditioning because the nutrition the female receives will transfer to her eggs/egg production. For the first week out of the fridge, a reduced lighting period of about 10 hours per day is recommended, increasing by 1-2 hours each week until reaching a peak of about 14 hours of light each day. By the end of the first week you should begin to hear your male(s) calling.
Newly metamorphosed froglet of the Oriental Fire-Bellied Toad, Bombina orientalis.
Photo ©2010 John P. Clare / FrogForum.net
Another approach, if feasible for you (and your back!), is to move the whole terrarium to the basement or other cool area of the house. Leave it there for a few months, with a reduced photoperiod of 8 hours per day. Their appetites will depend on the temperature, so feed appropriately. Once ready, bring the terrarium back to a warmer area of the house, empty all of the water and replace it with warmer water in the upper part of the temperature range already described. The photoperiod should be increased to 12 hours. Employing this method, the toads should lay eggs on about the third day, compared with after about 2 weeks using the first method.
Females will attach eggs, either singly or in clumps, to objects in the water, such as plants or rocks. It will take the eggs about 6 days to hatch at 22 °C (72 °F). The emerging tadpoles will feed from the yolk in their bellies for a few days after hatching, and once this is exhausted you will begin to see them swimming around. You can remove the eggs to a simple container, but an equally valid approach is to leave the tadpoles in the adult setup, because the tadpoles will feed on the algae and detritus present there. In the authors’ experience, the tadpoles left in an established tank grow faster, larger, and healthier than tadpoles that have been removed to another container. Augment the tadpoles’ diet with finely crushed fish flakes that contain high amounts of carotenes, and it’s a good idea to add crustaceans to the diet each week, such as baby brine shrimp and Daphnia, both of which should be provided dead, since the tadpoles are not actively predatory. As mentioned earlier in the feeding section of this article, carotenes are important because they give the toads their orange/red belly coloration, and many crustaceans are a good source of these chemicals. Tadpoles fed a diet lacking a significant amount of carotenes will have a yellow or weekly orange belly at metamorphosis.
The froglets, also known as toadlets, will begin to metamorphose about 6 weeks after hatching, if fed well and maintained at about 22 °C (72 °F). Once the toadlets begin emerging from the water, move them to a simple, easy to maintain setup. A suitable first terrarium consists of moistened brown paper towels in a plastic, shoebox-sized container. They should receive a diet of dusted/supplemented fruit flies (Drosophila) and pinhead crickets 5-6 times a week. It is important to remember to dust both of these food items with calcium and vitamins several times a week to ensure an adequate growth rate. Young Bombina froglets are very adept climbers, so use a secure, ventilated lid for this growing terrarium, and keep the substrate moist.
If you like colorful, diurnal frogs, but can't afford or don't have the necessary experience to keep dart frogs or mantellas, then fire-bellied toads are for you. Combined with the relative ease of their care, their low cost and forgiving requirements make for an ideal frog for both the beginner and the seasoned hobbyist. Lastly, their calls are subdued, so if you like your frogs on the quiet side, consider Bombina for your next terrarium project.
A note on species mixing: Many new frog enthusiasts attempt to house Bombina toads with other frogs or even newts. For example, many mistakenly believe that fire-bellied newts and fire-bellied toads make compatible companions. Sadly, this is a dangerous and common mistake. If you need any convincing that it is dangerous, please read the cautionary tales on mixing different species, over at Caudata Culture.
- Walls, Jerry G. Fantastic Frogs! 1995 TFH Publications
- Kuzmin, Sergius L. Bombina orientalis - Oriental Fire-Bellied Toad 1999 Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow AmphibiaWeb
- Merker, Gerold & Walter All Fired Up 2009 Reptiles Annual/Bowtie Publications
Comments? Criticism? Suggestions? Please use the "Post Comment" button below this article to share your thoughts.
For questions related to fire-bellied toads, please consult or create a new thread in the Fire-Bellied Toad section of the forum.