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Thread: Substrates for Frogs and Toads

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    Contributor SludgeMunkey's Avatar
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    Post Substrates for Frogs and Toads

    Here is the first draft of the Substrates Article for Frog Forum. Feel free to comment, and discuss so that I can make it better!



    Substrates for Frogs and Toads



    Johnny O Farnen 2011
    Draft 1.0


    For most keepers of frogs and toads, the need to have an aesthetically pleasing enclosure sometimes takes precedence over the need to have a healthy environment for your pet. In this article we will examine how to have a visually appealing enclosure that is also low maintenance and safe for your pets.
    Know your Frog!
    The first and by far most important step is gaining knowledge of the habitat requirements for your pet. Ideally, one should start planning and construction for the specimens prior to obtaining them. Often however, housing is an afterthought. Additionally, new and inexperienced keepers tend to build fantastic enclosures that are hard to maintain, or worse, completely unsuitable for the animal.
    Therefore, extensive research from multiple sources is advised. Do not make the most common mistake of the internet era and use the first hit on a search engine result. Likewise do not depend on information from pet shop employees, or random people from a forum. Read as many sources on the specific species you are planning. Then, use that combined knowledge and ask for input from more experienced keepers. Currently, the information on keeping amphibians is generally a larger, more up to date source than the local library or bookstore, but these sources should never be discounted!
    When studying up on your pet, take special note of their natural habitat. Is it tropical or temperate? Are you planning to breed? What are the temperature and water requirements of that species? What is the minimum volume enclosure needed for each animal? What do they eat? These may seem like very basic questions, but the answers you discover all have a direct bearing on what type of substrate you should use.
    Drainage, Drainage, Drainage
    Many species of Anura are ground dwelling once they reach adult form. Frogs and toads inhabit niches in environments ranging from desert to rainforest with nearly all non-polar habitats in between. While it would be impossible to cover every substrate required for every species in detail, the most common habitats and their ideal substrates are discussed separately here for clarity.
    Because of the necessity for water in amphibian environments the use of a drainage layer in the bottom of the enclosure is advisable. This is especially important if a water feature, mist or drip system, or swimming hole is to be used. These drainage layers extend the life of your substrate and help keep conditions suitable for pets and plants in the event of over watering.
    The most basic drainage layer is an inch or so of 3/8 inch pea gravel at the bottom of the enclosure. This is acceptable, but far from ideal. Once covered with substrate, there is no access to remove water or allow water to evaporate. This often results in anaerobic decay which quickly fouls the substrate. These are prime conditions for fungi and harmful bacteria.
    If the enclosure is not equipped with a drain, one can be installed. This is a difficult project especially with glass bottom enclosures. The risks of destroying the enclosure floor are high as most people do not have access to the proper tools for the job. Additionally, these drains often quickly become clogged with substrate and waste, thus rendering them useless, and forcing the keeper to tear down the enclosure anyway.
    A better solution to allow access to the floor of the enclosure below the substrate is by means of a stand pipe that allows siphon access to the tank floor. The author has used many versions, but has found that a section of white ˝ inch schedule 40 PVC pipe is best. The pipe is cut and deburred to a length that equals the total depth of the enclosure, minus two inches. The bottom end of the pipe is then cut or filed at a 45 degree angle. The top edge is beveled round with a bit of sand paper or a file. Additionally, the top inch of the pipe should be sanded so that it is slightly smaller in outside diameter. The smaller diameter allows easy installation and removal of a ˝ PVC pipe cap to keep pets and food stock out of the stand pipe.
    Once the stand pipes is constructed, place the cap on it and ensure it fits snugly, but is easy to remove. Now spray paint the pipe black with the cap in place. By using white pipe and black paint, the standpipe is well hidden in the enclosure, but the white tip visible when the cap is removed acts as a reminder to replace the cap.
    Once the paint is dry, the pipe should be attached to a rear corner of the enclosure with silicone adhesive. During installation, orient the 45 degree end of the pipe so that the longest edge faces out towards the enclosure walls. This helps to prevent the standpipe from getting clogged with substrate or drainage layer materials. The use of aquarium rated silicone is not required, as the standpipe is not structural. Make sure to completely seal the pipe to the corner in such a way that no gaps are present between the pipe and the enclosure walls to prevent pets or live foods from getting trapped. Also ensure the cap has clearance to be easily removed. The use of small spacers may help.
    Once the stand pipe is installed a layer of large pea gravel, LECA balls, plastic lighting grid (egg crate to most hobbyists) or other large particle substrate base can be placed in the tank. Over top of this layer, use of a permeable barrier like plastic screening is advisable. This keeps the drainage layer from becoming clogged and compacted by the actual substrate above it. The author prefers plastic needlepoint mesh for this purpose. Once the drainage layer is complete, the chosen substrate for the enclosure can be installed on top of it.
    With the drainage layer in place, any time an excess of liquid build up in the drainage layer, the stand pipe cap can be removed. A siphon can be sent down to the tank floor to remove all the liquid. It may be advisable to place a small shim under the opposite end of the enclosure to create a barely perceptible slope that allows for even better liquid removal.
    Substrates for Desert Dwellers
    Desert dwelling species are some of the more difficult to keep in captivity. As the adults generally spend most of their lives underground in aestivation The need for a deep substrate that compacts well and retains moisture is important. Commercial clay based substrates marketed for reptiles are completely unsuitable as a primary substrate for amphibians. These products can form hard, concrete like formations that make cleaning and care of the animal difficult. Additionally, they tend to absorb water when too dry, thus dehydrating and even mummifying your specimens.
    The ideal substrate for captivity is a mix of roughly 25% silica sand, 25% sifted soil low in biological material (i.e. NOT potting soil!), 48% choir and 2% pea gravel. (The choice of soil must be selective. It should be very light brown or tan in color. Dark colored soils should not be used for desert dwellers. These components should be measured by volume and then thoroughly mixed I a large container. Once mixed, the substrate should be soaked, but not saturated with water, and allowed to dry uncovered for a week or so. (The author mixes substrates in five gallon buckets with small holes in the bottom to allow excess water to drain away.) Once the substrate feels damp, but not wet to the touch, it is ready for use in a vivarium.
    It is wisest to mix enough substrate up to fill your chosen enclosure to a depth of at least 10 inches (including drainage layer) for burrowing species. This allows plenty of depth for a moisture gradient to form and gives your pet a choice of depths to burrow to. Deep is good in this case as it makes it easier for the keeper to control the available moisture in the soil without having to disturb the specimen(s). For non-burrowing species, a depth of 3-5 inches plus the drainage layer is choice if live plants are to be used.
    Desert substrates are probably the most difficult to maintain, as it takes a great deal of trial and error in getting a proper moisture gradient. The drainage layer makes this easier, as water can be added directly to the bottom of the tank just as easily as it is removed. Additionally, keeping this type of substrate clean is extremely challenging without disturbing the pet. In the case of desert dwelling toads, it may be easier to occasionally simulate rainfall, then feed and clean the enclosure once the specimen comes above ground on its own. It is also important to adjust the substrate mix to prevent ingestion of large particles by the specimens.

    Substrates for Temperate and Tropical Species
    Frogs and toads from this type of habitat have varied needs from their substrate based on locale. Extra attention to the drainage layer is very important. These enclosures generally include large water features that can easily cause fouling of the terrestrial substrate. For this reason, coir is the ideal substrate. However, if live plants are to be used, a mix including soil that supports plant growth is necessary.
    For terrestrial or semi-arboreal species a mix of 50% damp coir, 25% leaf litter and 25% topsoil free of fertilizers, pearlite and other additives is excellent. This allows for easy moisture control and cleaning, supports plant growth, and allows for the burrowing habits of numerous species. It is inexpensive to make and very affordable. The downside to this mix is it very easily fouls water features with coir. Also, the use of hard water, such as spring water, for misting will result in a white/yellow crust of carbonates. Special care should be taken to completely mix and sift the components. And allow it plenty of time to settle before live animals are added to the enclosure.
    A more expensive mix is roughly 25% damp coir, 25% organic top soil, 25% leaf litter, 5% sphagnum moss and 10% orchid bark. This mix is a variation of the ABG mix developed by Ron Gagliardo for orchids. Note the absence of activated carbon. Activated carbon, often mistakenly called charcoal, should never be used in vivaria due to the fatal risk of GI impaction! (In terrariums however, it is perfectly safe. Keep in mind terrariums DO NOT house live animals…) this mix is probably the most ideal for temperate species as it supports plant growth and is very natural looking.
    The sphagnum moss should be finely ground. This is easily achieved by soaking it in water overnight, rinsing, and then running it through the blender or food processor. Silica sand should not be used in mixes for enclosures with large water features. The sand makes cleaning difficult in the feature, and can damage pumps and filters.
    The mix should be installed to a depth of roughly four inches, plus the depth of the drainage layer. This may seem excessively deep, but both of these substrates will compress down with age naturally. There is no need to soak and settle either of these recipes. Once poured into the vivarium, they can be gently tamped into place by hand.
    For enclosures using these mixes and a large water feature it is advisable to build a transition zone between the substrate and the water. This is most simply achieved with flat rocks. Live carpet mosses or sections of bark also work well. This helps to keep substrate from fouling the water feature by movement of the animals.
    Aquatic substrates
    Substrates for fully aquatic adult species and tadpoles are relatively simple. In fact, many keepers prefer no substrate at all for their aquatic species! Many keepers want their enclosure to be a display piece in addition to a home for their pet however.
    In this case most any hobby standard aquatic substrate can be used as long as it meets these basic rules: It cannot be ingested by the animals. It has no sharp edges. It is of a size that will prevent food and waste from being caught in the substrate to rot.
    Standard size aquarium gravel is acceptable for small species. For large species the general rule to follow is that the individual particles should be larger than the mouth of a full grown adult. One way to bypass the restrictions of substrate size is to permanently affix the substrate to the bottom of the water feature.
    This can be done with silicone adhesives, or urethane glues. The mix of substrate and wet adhesive should be installed so that there are no deep voids that could trap food, waste or pets. This method is also ideal in that it is very easy to clean with a stiff bristled brush!
    Watching FrogTV because it is better when someone else has to maintain the enclosure!

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    100+ Post Member ViperJr's Avatar
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    Default Re: Substrates for Frogs and Toads

    Nicely done! I really can't comment the actual content (since I don't have enough knowledge about it), but it would be nice with some formating, since it's quite hard to read. But I guess that's comming in the later drafts

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    Contributor SludgeMunkey's Avatar
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    Default Re: Substrates for Frogs and Toads

    Aye. Since this is a cutNpaste from the Word document, it does become a serious wall of text, not to worry, the final version will have pictures, formatting and the like.


    I could really use input from folks around here, as my frog and toad experience is limited. I can build an enclosure for anything, but I always appreciate input from people with specialty knowledge.
    Watching FrogTV because it is better when someone else has to maintain the enclosure!

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