White's Treefrog Enclosure Information and Care
When most hobbyists decide to get a pet tree frog, there are two species that top the most-wanted list: the stunning but delicate red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas), and the permanently smiling White’s tree frog (Litoria caerulea). If you’ve ever seen a frog-themed greeting card, chances are a White’s tree frog was on the front. It may not be as colorful as the red-eyed tree frog, but as any parents visiting a pet store with their children will tell you, the White’s chubby physique and its cute and friendly appearance are a winning combination.
The seemingly permanent smile of Littoria caerulea is part of its widespread popularity.
It’s no coincidence that the White’s tree frog is the first pet frog choice of most owners. As frogs go, it’s one of the hardiest available, easy to feed, tames very well, and will eat almost anything. White’s tree frogs also tolerate handling better than almost any other amphibian, and for this reason specimens are often found in petting zoos and schools.
The White’s tree frog originates from northern and eastern parts of Australia and nearby New Guinea. In Australia it is called the green tree frog, but this name doesn’t travel well because there are plenty of different species of tree frog around the world that are green in color. It prefers humid to semi-dry forested areas for habitat, but this large tree frog is very adaptable and is now found quite commonly in suburban gardens in Australia.
The toes of the White’s tree frog have highly developed adhesive pads for climbing trees, plants and vertical surfaces. Adults can reach almost 5 inches, but most rarely exceed 4.5 inches from snout to vent.
As the Australian name implies, the White’s tree frog exhibits a pleasant, green base color, often with a few white or yellow dots or marks on the back and sides. Like many tree frogs, it is capable of changing the color of its skin, which may indicate stress or sudden changes in humidity. Colors can vary from a very dark brown to a very pale green. Some populations display a bluish hue most of the time, and these are often in high demand in the pet trade as “Australian Blues.” The green coloration of older individuals of most populations can darken to appear bluish, which can confuse the issue.
In the wild, White’s tree frogs breed during the summer months after periods of heavy rain. They have a very loud croak, which sounds like a loud duck quack repeated over and over again. Only the males have a vocal sac, and a pond full of calling males can be deafening. Eggs are laid in water, where they hatch after about 48 hours. The tadpoles generally reach metamorphosis in a month to six weeks, although stragglers can remain as tadpoles for up to a year if their habitat doesn’t dry out.
Availability and Acquisition
In their native Australia, White’s tree frogs are protected from collection and export. However, wild-caught frogs from New Guinea are frequently encountered in the pet trade. I don’t advise buying them, however. Buying wild-caught frogs only encourages the unregulated collecting of these animals from the wild, and wild-caught individuals invariably carry parasites. They have also endured quite a stressful ordeal to make it to the pet store, and the final shock of taking yet another journey to your home could cause disease to take hold, or even death.
There are few captive breeders of tree frogs in the U.S., but captive bred White’s tree frogs are frequently available in the pet trade. It’s not always safe to trust pet store labeling, but a White’s tree frog that is less than 2 inches long is almost certainly a captive-bred youngster (most wild-caught animals are adult size). I acquire all of my tree frogs from my friend Michael Novy at Rainforest Junky’s, one of the few sources of genuine Australian Blue White’s tree frogs in the U.S. You can also find captive-bred specimens at reptile shows, but remember to use the size guide so you can be sure you’re acquiring a genuine captive-bred White’s tree frog.
When selecting your new pet frog, look for bright eyes, a healthy weight (not too skinny, and not bloated), and don’t be afraid to ask the seller to show you the frog eating. Captive-bred specimens are usually more interested in food than anything else, and a White’s tree frog that doesn’t want to eat is usually scared, stressed or diseased.
Many hobbyists want to buy a male and a female together. It’s very difficult to sex these frogs before they reach adult size, but here are some tips that may help. Both males and females can vocalize, but only males have an expanding throat/vocal sac. Males at or near sexual maturity may have raised, dark pads at the base of their thumbs. These are the nuptial pads, and they aid males in holding onto females during mating. They are not present in female frogs. Adult females tend to be larger and fatter than males. Mature males may also have a slightly darkened throat, while that of the female will be pale or white in comparison.
The best way to ensure you acquire both males and females, especially when you are buying young captive-bred frogs, is to buy a group of four or more. As they grow, the males will make their presence known by croaking at night occasionally. Sexual maturity can be reached within one year, but the frogs will probably not attain their full size until the end of their second year.
Setting Up the Enclosure
White’s tree frogs are very tolerant when it comes to care requirements. For a group of four young frogs, a 20-gallon horizontal glass aquarium should be considered a minimum enclosure size. Because these frogs like to climb and sleep high up in branches, consider a terrarium that is quite tall. Adult White’s tend to be lazy, so don’t be surprised if your frogs climb a lot when they’re young and begin spending most of their time on the substrate as they age.
White’s are messy eaters that use their front feet to cram food into their mouths. This means that you have to be careful when choosing a terrarium substrate, because some of it will likely end up in the frog’s mouth on a regular basis. Large particles of substrate can cause an intestinal impaction in frogs, leading to death. Several layers of moist paper towel can be used as a substrate (this is especially good for quarantine containers). More aesthetically pleasing, long-term substrates that are typically safe to use include finely ground coconut fiber (often sold as Eco-Earth in pet stores), garden soil, ground walnut husk and specialized substrates that are sold for use with dart frog terrariums.
My current preference is to use a small particle size Atlanta Botanical Garden mix (originally made for orchids but now more often available as a dart frog terrarium substrate). I mix it with equal parts Eco-Earth and organic topsoil. I also add a little ground walnut shell to make the substrate less dense.
Keep in mind that because White’s have large appetites they can quickly foul the soil in a terrarium, so be prepared to do regular spot cleaning of feces and uneaten food, and bi-weekly or monthly complete substrate changes.
If you’re planning on a larger terrarium, especially one that will have a water feature and plants, then the dart frog terrarium approach is a good one. Start with a drainage layer of 2 to 5 inches of Hydroton (lightweight clay balls sold in hydroponic stores) or similar material. Cover this with a fine mesh, such as fiberglass window screening from a hardware store. You can place the substrate mix mentioned previously directly on top of the screening, but I prefer to place a half-inch layer of coconut husk (not ground this time) on the screen to minimize the entry of soil particles into the drainage layer beneath. Your soil layer should be several inches thick.
If you’re adept at planning, you can incorporate a water feature into the drainage layer. I create a small pond by omitting the Hydroton from one part of the terrarium bottom and letting the fiberglass mesh reach the bottom of the enclosure in that area. I then place aquarium stones or large-particle gravel on top of the mesh as a pond substrate. For the remaining areas, I continue building up the substrate layers as described, being sure to keep any soil out of the pond area.
For tree frogs I don’t cover the soil substrate with leaf litter or sphagnum moss, as these can end up in a White’s mouth very easily. Some densely growing mosses/sheet mosses can make nice substrate coverings, though, and are harder for the frogs to ingest.
Large-leafed terrarium plants such as the tougher types of Monstera and some Philodendron can stand up to the heavy weight of a White’s tree frog. I like to include some ghostwood or other terrarium-safe woods (avoid grape wood, as it never stops molding in humid conditions) and use them as a scaffold upon which the frogs can climb and for smaller plants to grip. Plants can be inserted directly into the substrate and should grow well. The main consideration is that White’s tree frogs can trample delicate plants, so choose your plants carefully and, if you can, give them a few weeks to establish themselves before introducing your frogs to the terrarium.
Plants need lighting to grow and thrive. Your frogs do not require light, and unlike reptiles they don’t have a need for UVB light. Fluorescent plant lights are ideal; I also like to use the aquarium lights sold for freshwater fish tanks. These provide a pleasant daylight color, and plants love them. Keep the lights on a 12-hour on/12-hour off cycle using an electronic timer from the hardware store.
Temperature and Humidity
White’s tree frogs are tolerant of a wide range of temperatures. I’ve kept them in the low 50s Fahrenheit for short periods of time, and they will also tolerate temperatures up into the 90s. That said, I recommend a terrarium temperature in the 70s or 80s during the day, with a slight drop at night. For many people, this is close to normal room temperature, and the artificial lighting previously mentioned may be enough to get the temperature inside the enclosure up to 80 degrees during the day. I don’t recommend heat lamps for frog terrariums. If the enclosure temperature needs a boost, use a reptile heat mat attached to the side of the terrarium (be sure to use a thermostat to regulate its output).
Humidity and ventilation should be considered in the early planning stages of the terrarium. A brief daily misting of the terrarium with distilled water from a hand mister is a good idea. Keep a water bowl in the terrarium, too, in case your frogs fancy a dip. A landscaped pond as described earlier will also serve this purpose. Change the water regularly to maintain hygiene, and use only spring water or dechlorinated tap water for bowls and/or ponds.
If the terrarium is not adequately ventilated, White’s tree frogs can develop respiratory problems. At least a quarter of the enclosure lid should be screened for ventilation, but as this will also lower the humidity of the terrarium, regular misting will be important. Some keepers install automatic misting systems. White’s actually prefer somewhat less humid conditions than most tree frogs, so don’t go overboard with the misting. An otherwise healthy White’s tree frog will go dark brown if the humidity level rises beyond its preference, and this is especially true if the substrate is too wet. Overly wet substrate can promote fungi and mold, and these can cause respiratory problems in amphibians.
Feeding Your Hungry Frog
White’s tree frogs are so greedy when it comes to eating, and lazy, that they have a tendency to become obese, especially older individuals. Crickets are probably the best staple food, but earthworms are a good substitute. Crickets should be gut-loaded with a commercial cricket food before feeding them to the frogs, to increase their nutritional value. Also use a calcium dusting supplement on the crickets every week or so to ensure your frogs receive adequate nutrients for good bone development.
Feed adult White’s tree frogs as many crickets as they will eat in 10 to 15 minutes, two to three times a week. Feed more frequently if the frogs are maintained at temperatures in the 80s. Young frogs should be fed every one to two days, again with as many crickets as they will eat in 10 to 15 minutes.
White’s tree frogs tend to be more active at night, but if you feed them during daylight hours they will come to expect food during the day.
Good treat foods include waxworms, mealworms and superworms. Adult White’s tree frogs can eat frozen/thawed pinky mice, too. These treat foods should be fed very sparingly due to their high fat content.
Begging behavior is common in these frogs, and they will often accept food from tweezers and even fingers. Don’t be afraid if a White’s tree frog accidentally latches onto your finger—they don’t have real biting teeth, and they won’t hurt you.
If you manage to get tadpoles, they do very well on good-quality commercial fish foods. Just be careful to keep their water clean with regular water changes.
As mentioned, better than most amphibians, White’s tree frogs tolerate handling rather well. If you handle yours, be sure to keep your hands free of soaps and creams, and make sure to wash your hands afterward. Be gentle with your chubby green friend!
Many amphibian hobbyists dismiss the White’s tree frog as a beginner frog. In my opinion, this is unfair. White’s tree frogs make great interactive pets that live a long time—up to 20 years if you’re lucky—and they are excellent pets for children who are interested in a pet that is both unusual and fun. Keep a White’s and you’ll be smiling, too!
John Clare, Ph.D., is the founder of Caudata.org, the longest running amphibian community on the Internet. He is also the founder of FrogForum.net.