Order: Anura
Family: Bombinatoridae
Genus: Bombina
European Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina) Linnaeus, 1761
Yellow-bellied Toad (Bombina variegata) Linnaeus, 1758
Guangxi Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina fortinuptialis) Tian & Wu, 1978
Giant Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina maxima) Boulenger, 1905
Hubei Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina microdeladigitoria) Liu, Hu & Yang, 1960
Oriental Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina orientalis) Boulenger, 18901
Fire-bellied toads are warty, aquatic toads that tend to be gregarious. They do not have a tympanic membrane, or eardrum. Unlike most toads the pupil of their eye is triangular. Again, unlike most frogs, male toads no not have a resonator, they actually make calls through inhalation rather than exhalation. The back or dorsal surface of these toads is covered with rough warts or tubercles and is brown gray to gray-greenish or bright green with dark spots. 2

These particular toads are special, even in the wacky world of frogs that gives us poison arrow frogs and tree frogs that carry their tadpoles on their backs as they look for puddles in leaves. At least I think so. Perhaps I've a fondness for them because, unlike the others, they make relatively carefree pets. Whatever it is, these are not your ordinary frog.

They used to come under the family Discoglossidae which related to the lack of mobile tongue. However because of the stark differences in morphology, biology and behaviour, they were placed in their own family Bombinatoridae along with another little-known genus called Barbourula (Jungle Toads).1

All small, even the giant variety, the European is the smallest at an average of 4 cm in length. The Giant is the largest, going up to 6 cm. The Oriental reach about 5 cm in length.

Although they are warty, they are not excessively so. Their backs are bumpy rather than having apparent growths. The Oriental is the brightest of the varieties, having a grass green back with black spots and splotches. This can darken as the year progresses, although it will brighten again after the toad has shed.

They all exhibit, as their name would suggest, a brightly colored underside that is splotched with black markings, although the proportions of black to red or yellow can vary dramatically. The coloring is related to diet, which is why one species is entirely yellow instead of the vivid red or orange red of the others. According to Staniszewski:

In some species, particularly where bloodworm, water shrimps, daphnia and other water crustacea are absent from ponds, the belly tends to be an orange or weak yellow colour. The association is that many freshwater crustaceans contain a naturally occurring substance known as canthaxanthin - a red carotene pigment which gives the toads their vivid red belly coloration.1

As with other vivid frog coloration, this is an indicator to predators that they are poisonous and nasty tasting. When threatened, the toads respond with the unken reflex where they arch their back and arms, making their bright coloring more visible. They may also flip over to really show off their coloring.

Fire bellied toads make a very soft chirp, almost a hoot, when they croak by inhaling. It is one of the few ways to tell the difference between a male and a female. The males croak, and develop ‘nuptial pads’ in mating season. Nuptial pads are roughly textured surfaces on the inside of their arms which help the male maintain a firm grip on the female. All other characteristics are so minor that it’s unlikely that you’d be able to distinguish male from female without a really large population in which to compare trends. Luckily, males don’t mind living together, even without a female. They may wrestle or box or grab each other, but they won’t hurt each other.

Unlike what most people think of frogs and toads, fire bellied toads do not have a long tongue that shoots out to snatch up prey while they lurk in the shadows. Fire bellied toads’ tongues are short and stuck to the bottoms of their mouths. Instead, they must catch insects with their sticky tongues by pouncing on them with their mouths open. This can be rather comical to watch as a toad perks up to observe a cricket walking by. Yes, they can turn their heads! Even funnier is watching them eat an earthworm and use the backs of their 'hands' to push the worm into their mouth as the worm is frantically trying to wriggle away.

If you haven’t figured it out by this description, Fire bellied toads need live food. Their hunting reflexes are triggered by movement. If you are willing to give them fresh protein by tweezers, then go right ahead. I find it easier to give mine crickets twice a week.

Care and Feeding

Not put off by the live food thing? Think you might want one? Well, the fire bellied toad is a popular pet, especially the Oriental fire bellied toad (B. orientalis). They stay small, prefer to live in groups, and are relatively hardy and easy to care for. The Smithsonian site places their life span at about 20 years! My own experience is with the B. bombina. I’ve had two for two years now, and I think they are great.

    Some things to keep in mind.
  1. They are poisonous.
  2. They should not be handled unless absolutely necessary.
  3. They need live food.
  4. They are temperate climate creatures that need a heat source and a light source
  5. They need a tank with both a water section and a land section and have a number of other housing needs.
  6. You will probably need a permit to keep one, depending on where you live, and assuming they are not forbidden by law

1) Poison control: First off, fire bellied toads are not poisonous enough to kill you or your dog. However, if your dog or cat eats one, be prepared for the animal to be very uncomfortable. A trip to the vet is advised, especially if the eater is a small animal. If you decide to keep fire bellied toads, keep in mind that they are toxic to most other animals, especially other amphibians. I’ve heard of fire bellied newts successfully being kept in proximity, but other frogs and toads have been known to die fairly quickly upon exposure to the shared water supply, within days to minutes.

2) Handling: Not only are they poisonous to you, and may cause rashes if you have sensitive skin. We are bad for them. Our skin contains salts and oils, and perhaps detergents and lotions, which are very bad for the toads. Their skins are delicate and extremely permeable. They are also rather shy, and while they will eat while you watch, they don’t like their tank space invaded by the giant hand. Don’t handle them unless you have to, and if you have to, try to wash your hands first and keep your hands wet with water from the tank. Even the chlorine in tap water is bad for them.

3) Food and feeding: As I mentioned, fire bellied toads’ hunting instinct is only triggered by movement. They won’t find stuff by smell or by appearance. I’ve had a hungry toad let many an earthworm escape because the worm inched away without appearing to move. Most decent pet stores sell at least one form of live food that your frog can eat. Most common are thin shelled crickets and regular mealworms. After that: waxworms, blackworms. When hungry, toads have also been known to eat small fish such as guppies. HOWEVER, to make sure that your frog is eating enough, do not rely on aquatic foods (blackworms). Fire bellied toads prefer to hunt and eat on land. Also, waxworms are a treat only. They drown almost instantaneously (so are inconvenient in a semi-aquatic environment) and they are extremely sugary, so are not a balanced diet. Red wigglers are small earthworms commonly used for home compost bins. They are the ideal size, and I have a bin like this for earthworms for my toads and my oscar.

You can also catch insects for your toad, although don’t give any that may have been exposed to chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizer, car exhaust, etc. All amphibians are extremely susceptible to such things. Don’t feed them superworms (kingworms) or insects with hard shells. They can be killed by them. There have been stories (perhaps apocryphal, but I’m not risking it) of frogs swallowing a superworm whole, and then dying when the superworm ate its way out.

A diet of store bought crickets is fine, although you will need to occasionally supplement the crickets by feeding them a vitamin supplement or by dusting the crickets with a herpetile mineral supplement powder just prior to feeding the toads. This should not be done too frequently, or you will overdose the toads. I feed my toads 4-6 large crickets twice a week and dust them no more than once a month. Keep in mind that your toads may be very hungry when you first bring them home. Mine ate 25 small crickets in less than 4 hours, the first day!

I keep my crickets in an old fish tank and feed them a high quality fish food so that they are always gut loaded for my toads. Crickets straight from the store tend to be hungry. A fed cricket brings more nutrients to the creature eating it. Because of this, I put them in a tank with food and a water source for 24 hours before feeding my toads. Keep in mind that crickets are incredibly stupid, and will drown in a teaspoon of water. A piece of apple or potato, or Cricket Quencher (a brand of water holding resin that works a little like gelatin) will give them a clean, hazard free water source.

You can also put all the crickets directly in the tank with the toads and let the toads eat them slowly over the course of several days. Some may drown and need to be fished out, but it is certainly more convenient than having a separate tank for just crickets. You can put a small amount of food in the tank for the crickets, but keep in mind that any uneaten food may well foul the tank. Live plants help cut down on this, and the crickets can eat the plants as well.

4 and 5) Habitat: I keep talking about the tank, and this is something you should have set up at least a day before your toads come home, preferably longer if you are making a full blown vivarium. If you have moving water and live plants, you need to make sure the system is cycled and properly working before you put live critters in it.

Fire bellied toads need space and clean water. Your toads also need a humid environment that isn’t too cold, with good ventilation, and light. They prefer to live in small groups. Their minimum space requirement is a 10 gallon tank for 1-3 toads. And not a tall tank, like a hexagonal tank. Stick with a standard horizontal glass tank. You will also need a cover. Fire bellied toads can climb, and some of their food is good at escaping as well. The kind of cover you use will depend on the kind of light source you choose. As long as it fits, it doesn’t really matter what you pick.

Make sure that the water you use does not contain chlorine, salts, or metals. Any number of fish products will neutralize all or most of the components.

Because temperature is an issue, you will need at least one thermometer. I prefer the thin color-changing variety that sticks to the exterior of the glass. Because I have a water and a land zone in my tank, I have two thermometers. One below the water line, and one near the top of the tank over a land mass. Most fire bellied toads should undergo a dormant period if they are healthy and fat, but the Oriental variety should never do so as they will sicken in the cold temperatures. They come from a temperate climate and their water temperature should not go below 60°F in the ‘winter.’ Ideally the water will be closer to 78°F during their active period. The other varieties are hardier at lower temperatures.

The land portions of the tank should be covered in moist moss. Fire bellied toads will on occasion burrow into the moss to rest. Gravel is not suitable for the surface of land masses as fire bellied toads may accidentally ingest some gravel when they capture prey. Swallowing gravel can be fatal to your toad. Cover any gravel with a thick layer of moss. If you are putting live plants in the tank, make sure that the plant and the substrate are not contaminated with any chemicals, fertilizers, etc. Prepared potting soils usually contain all sorts of nasty things, including perlite which will float around and look awful (let alone get accidentally eaten by a toad). Do not use it. It is much better to get mulched coconut husk fiber, or other untreated, amphibian safe product. The organisms in the tank will provide all the nutrients your plant needs. Additives are dangerous to your animals, especially if you have a semi-aquatic tank where the soil will come in contact with the water source. Everything that goes into your tank, no matter what it is, should be as clean and free of chemical contaminants as possible. This includes all the plants, rocks, gravel, driftwood, animals, food, water.

A number of plants can grow quite happily in sand or coconut fiber, top dressed with moss. Peace lilies, pothos, philodendron, etc, do quite well in bog conditions, and the vines do not even require planting. Simply place a cutting in the water, and leave it alone. Keep in mind that large peace lilies will probably grow too tall for the tank, if kept in the land mass. It is worthwhile finding a dwarf variety, or you’ll have the problem I’m having, with the plant pressing up against the cover trying to lift the lid.

The swimming pool tank: The easiest to set up is a ‘land’ tank with a basin of water in one half which can be removed to dump, wash and refill. You will need to do so at least once a week if not more. Remember, these critters absorb water through their skins. Sitting in stagnant water is not pleasant or healthy. If you do this kind of design, you will need to make sure that the basin is at least 4 inches deep and has something in it at a shallow angle, like a piece of driftwood or a rock, so the toads can get in and out. If you nest two containers, it will be easier to replace the basin holding the water. The empty basin will prevent the substrate from collapsing into the empty space while you’re off washing the dish.

You will also need to keep the tank at minimum temperature somehow. Remember, if you are using a light as a heat source, that once the light goes out, so does the heat. This won’t matter if you have a room that stays in the right temperature range year round. Some people with a dedicated fish room have no trouble maintaining an ideal temperature without a specific heat source. Don’t forget to water any live plants, and mist the tank once a week to wash down the surfaces and keep the humidity high.

The deluxe ecosystem tank: I have found that a true semi-aquatic tank, while more expensive and work to set up, it is actually the easiest to keep since there is less daily maintenance. Because of the constant water flow, regulated by a submersible power head, the water is biologically filtered constantly. Water changes are less frequent (although still necessary), and the tank looks very natural. I can also maintain the tank temperature with a submersible heater.

Essentially, any tank setup which will cycle the water through the tank, with a land mass and a sizeable pond area that is at least 4 inches deep in one section will do. Pet supply sources sell water permeable tank dividers for just this purpose. This keeps the substrate for the land mass from slowly slumping down into the pond side of the tank. I used an intricate network of plastic canvas instead and have had the slumping issue. It seems to have stabilized after a year, though. No matter what you use, you need to have something in the pond side to make it easier for your frogs to climb out. Rocks or driftwood work well, as does a slope (although slopes are difficult to maintain. Thick plant growth is also a possibility, although less easy to control.

There are any number of possible tank designs for this kind of vivarium. You’re only limited by size and a few technical requirements. I will describe mine to give you an idea of the possibilities.

The hidden design feature of my tank which permits me to have a fairly stable ecosystem is the under gravel filter. It sits below the substrate and keeps all the water moving, with no stagnant spots and with excellent biological filtration. The elevated land mass on one side is comprised of sand, top dressed with an inch of fish tank gravel, and which is dressed with a layer of coconut husk mulch, on top of which I have a thick layer of moss. The shallow pond on the other side is gravel lined. I fashioned a deep pool in the land mass out of a very clean one quart round plastic take-out container and some silicon sealant designed for fish tanks. This pool has a small power head in the bottom which pulls the water through the under gravel filter. If I feel the need to add some activated carbon to the filtration, a mesh bag can be tucked in the bottom of the pool on top of the power head. Since there is less resistance due to the depth of the substrate on the pond side, most of the water pulled up into the pool is from the pond. This is a good thing, as it keeps the pond water very clean. This has become more important as I have added a few guppies to the water.

One small part of the edge of the pool container is slightly lower than the rest, directing the water to spill over onto a piece of slate which further directs the flow back into the pond in a tiny waterfall. The waterfall aerates the water and helps keep the humidity level very high. In the winter, I have considerable condensation on the glass, as the inside of the tank is almost 10°F warmer than the air in my room. (I planned and planned this little rill and cascade. That they work so well gives me the warm fuzzies every time I look at them, and makes me swell like a bullfrog every time I think of the tank design.)

The heat source for the tank is a submersible fish tank heater in the pond side of tank. Because the water cycles through the whole tank, it is sufficient to keep the entire tank warm. The power head also produces some residual heat, which one of my toads seems to enjoy. Because the heat source is unrelated to the light source, the tank temperature is very consistent.

I have several live plants in the tank. There is a small Anubias (Anubias nana) in the pond, half of which sticks above the surface of the water. There are several peace lilies (Spathiophyllum tasson) on the main portion of the land mass. They have spread from a few small plants to a veritable grove. I have seen one of my toads sitting in the leaves. I’m not sure if he was hunting, or just entertaining himself. There is a sprig of philodendron vine in the pool.

I used to buy dehydrated moss to top dress the land mass. However, one day I had an excess of Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana) in one of my fish tanks and decided to try using that instead. Because of the high humidity of the tank, and the wicking action of the substrate, the Java moss is still alive, and has started growing up the walls of the tank in places. I like this because I no longer need to replace old, nasty moss every six months! Additionally, a tiny Java fern (Microsorium pteropus v.’Wendelov’) got caught in the Java moss, and is still alive, despite not being submerged.

All of these plants means that the water in the tank stays very clean. Nonetheless, I still need to do water changes. The toads’ toxins build up in the water, and it isn’t good to let the concentrations get too strong.

The current occupants of my tank are 2 male fire bellied toads, 3 small feeder guppies, and a pond snail. A few earthworms have escaped into the coconut mulch. At least one is still alive as the mulch is constantly freshly turned in spots. There is a rotating population of other insects, mostly crickets. Occasionally a cricket will escape into the house and provide hours of entertainment for my cats. If I catch an escaped cricket in good condition, I return it to the holding tank for a 3 day reprieve. If it’s irreparably injured, I feed it to my oscar, who isn’t as picky about moving food.

6) Legalities: Depending upon your state and country, you may or may not need an annual permit to keep these charming critters. If they are a permitted animal, the pet store will most likely be able to give you a temporary permit and the information to file for the yearly. In New Jersey, the permit costs $10 annually for any number of animals, and must be renewed at the beginning of the year, regardless of when you filed for the initial permit. Regulations are different everywhere, so I'll just give you a few details from the form I had to fill out.

Basically, the purpose of the permit is to make sure that the animals aren't going to be neglected or mistreated. I had to describe their habitat in detail and I needed to give the name of a veterinarian for my toads. The first vet I checked wanted to do an $80 exam on each of them and asked for a stool sample (!), before he would permit his name to be used. The second vet I called said it was fine to put his name down without being seen. Needless to say, I went with the second vet.

I also agreed, in signing the permit, that I would allow site visits by an official representative of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, should they choose to inspect my toads' habitat. This has never happened. Apparently, 2 fire bellied toads are low on their priorities for a site visit!

All in all, the permit was a minor hurdle with only the need for a veterinarian causing any consternation on my part. The state sends the renewal every year, and I just have to send them a check. I'm sure that regulations in other states and countries differ, so inquire with your pet store or the proper government agency prior to trying to purchase one.

1Marc Staniszewski’s Bombina FAQ is a fantastic resource and my primary source when I went looking for what to do for my toads: www.amphibian.co.uk/bombina.html

2Smithonian website: www.nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/ReptilesAmphibians/Facts/FactSheets/Orientalfirebelliedtoad.cfm

One woman’s personal quest to make a comprehensive frog keeping resource: http://allaboutfrogs.org/froglnd.shtml

A source for live foods and information: www.wormman.com/

A fantastic source for aquatic and bog plants at really competitive prices, at least compared to my LFS. Their stuff is usually in excellent condition, and their customer service is great on the rare occasion when something goes wrong.: www.azgardens.com

New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife forms page: www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/forms.htm

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