What do Amphibians Eat for Breakfast?

It’s often said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Frogs, salamanders, and other amphibians definitely agree (we administered a survey in the swamps of North Carolina, small sample size, but results statistically relevant).

The word “amphibian” means “double life” in Greek and refers to the ability to live both in water and on land. Roughly 400 million years ago, amphibians evolved from fish and became the first vertebrates to live on land, although breeding and other vital functions remained water-based. Amphibians must maintain moist skin in order to absorb oxygen and breathe, therefore they are extremely susceptible to drought and dehydration. Some amphibians use gills to breathe, others use lungs, and others can only breathe through their skin, although most amphibians have developed some combination of breathing both through the lungs and the skin.

Over 7,000 species of amphibians currently exist and are divided into three different orders. The Anuran order consists of frogs and toads and accounts for roughly 85% of all amphibious species. Salamanders belong to the Urodele order and comprise another 10% of the species while Gymnophonia (blind, worm-like amphibians) account for about 5% of all amphibious species.

Diets vary greatly between the different orders, within the orders, and throughout different life stages. For this reason we will focus on several species from each order to provide a good idea of what amphibians like to eat for breakfast. It’s also important to note that many amphibians are nocturnal, so their ‘breakfast’ happens as many of us are winding down for bed.

American Bullfrog:  In a truly mind-boggling 2013 study, researchers found a total of 18,814 different species in the stomachs of over 5,000 American bullfrogs on southern Vancouver Island. These species included insects, spiders, crayfish, fish, other frogs, salamanders, snakes, lizards, turtles, and even birds and small mammals. The American Bullfrog is not native to Vancouver Island and has also been transported to other places around the world. The fact that they can and do eat such a wide variety of other species has lead to their recognition as one the most invasive species in the world. Originally native to the eastern United States, American Bullfrog populations can now be found in Canada, the western U.S., Europe, Asia, and South America.

American Green Tree Frog: Native to the southeastern United States, the American green tree frog can be found in ponds, lakes, marshes, swamps, streams, and on the windows of retirees all around Florida. Common breakfasts include flies, ants, crickets, mosquitoes (thank you!), beetles, and moths. Tree frogs are attracted to light and motion and are more likely to attack prey that is active and moving rather than prey that stays still and hides.

Caecilians: Amphibious species belonging to the aforementioned Gymnophonia order are known as caecilians. The smallest species measures 3 inches in length while the largest can grow up to 5 feet long. Most of us will never encounter a caecilian, as these snake-like amphibians live underground in loose, damp soil, often in the tropics. They hunt through the use of sensory tentacles located on their “head” and have very sharp teeth most often used for eating worms and termites. However, larger species also include snakes, lizards, and frogs on their breakfast menu.

Chamberlain’s Dwarf Salamander: This small salamander usually measures between 2 and 6 inches and can be found in streams and ponds throughout the coastal plains of the southeastern United States (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). They may be small, but they have a very powerful, almost frog-like tongues capable of ambushing spiders, mites, ticks, millipedes, spiders, and other small insects.

Chinese Giant Salamander: The world’s largest amphibian can grow to a length of almost 2 meters but averages slightly over 1 meter. Endemic to China, the giant salamander lives 100% aquatically but does not have gills, fully relying on its skin to absorb oxygen. They are nocturnal animals with tiny eyes, employing smell and touch to find prey. Their most common meals include freshwater crabs, smaller salamanders (they are known cannibals), worms, insects, crayfish, and snails.

Common Toad: The United Kingdom’s largest amphibian, the common toad can be found throughout the British Isles (although not on Ireland, guess they don’t like Guinness), most of Europe, and northwest Asia and Africa. The common toad often eats insects, larvae, spiders, slugs, and worms while more mature, large toads also eat small snakes and mice which are swallowed alive.

Fire Salamander: This striking black and yellow salamander is Europe’s most common and can live to be 50 years old. Fire salamanders live in forests and prefer to hide in mossy tree trunks and under fallen leaves where they wait for breakfasts such as spiders, worms, and slugs. Larger Fire Salamanders will eat other amphibians such as frogs and newts as well.

Olm: This fascinating salamander can only be found in the cave waters of central Europe, especially in Slovenia. The olm is completely blind and depends mostly upon smell for finding prey, although olms can also pick up sound vibrations and some electrical currents. The olm’s breakfast usually includes some variation of freshwater shrimp, snails, or insects. Olms can slow their metabolic rate when times are tough and experiments have shown that olms can survive for up 10 years without food!

Poison Dart Frog: The Poison Dart Frog resides in the steamy jungles of Central and South America. Their beautiful colors signify danger to both humans and animals alike. Although there are more than 150 species of poison dart frogs, all are carnivorous and dine upon a combination of ants, spiders, termites, flies, and other insects. The Fire-Bellied Snake of the Amazon is the only creature known to be immune to the frog’s venom, therefore the frogs are much more likely to eat breakfast than be eaten for breakfast!

Red-Eyed Tree FrogPerhaps the most photogenic of amphibians, the Red-Eyed Tree Frog’s habitat ranges from Mexico to northern South America. They sleep on the underside of leaves during the day and hunt almost exclusively at night, feeding upon crickets, flies, and moths with their lightning-quick tongues. The frog’s beautiful colors, striking eyes, and prevalence have lead them to become a common face of movements to save rainforests.

Other neat amphibian facts:

  • Many amphibians spend their winters hibernating in mud, damp logs, or between rocks.
  • Some frogs have a natural ‘antifreeze’ in the form of glucose which keeps blood and vital organs running while parts of their body actually freeze. Their heart and breathing can both stop but the frog will thaw out and be alive! (And definitely ready for breakfast!)
  • The largest amphibian is the West African Goliath Frog, measuring over 1 foot in length.
  • Some say the Yin and Yang symbol was based on the Chinese Giant Salamander.
  • Baby caecilians stay with their mothers for several weeks, “nursing” on layers of fat and nutrients that the mother grows for the specific purpose of feeding.
  • The bright, contrasting colors of the Red-Eyed Tree Frog are thought to create a blurry vision in the eyes of nocturnal predators with sharp vision.
  • In case you missed it the first time, olms can survive for up to 10 years without food!

Sources:  Amphiaweb.org, chinesegiantsalamanders.org, National Geographic, Science Daily, and Wired