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Tadpoles: Larvae of Frogs and Toads

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African clawed frog embryos and young tadpole

African clawed frog embryos and young tadpole

Tadpoles Are Baby Frogs

Tadpoles are the larval stages of frogs and toads. Amphibians differ from most other vertebrates (higher organisms with a backbone), in that their eggs develop into a larval stage, known as a tadpole. The word comes from the old English words for a toad and a head (poll). Pollywog, another name for a tadpole, also comes from the root 'poll' for head and the old word for wriggle, reflecting the fact that their bodies appear to be completely made up of a head and a tail. Whereas frogs and toads are terrestrial, tadpoles are completely aquatic. They have gills instead of eyes. Their food, and therefore their mouths and digestive systems, is often very different from that of their parents. Tadpoles also have tails, which the adults lack. Frogs are in the order Anura, meaning no tail, as opposed to tailed amphibians, like salamanders.

Stages of tadpole development

Stages of tadpole development


After an initial period of growth, the tadpole must develop into a frog, this process is known as metamorphosis, and involved a huge and rapid remodeling of the tadpole’s body. One of the first steps in metamorphosis is the emergence of limbs. These start off as tiny limb buds which can only be seen under the microscope, in a process very similar to limb development in mammalian embryos, but much later during development, and grow into proper fore- and hind-limbs.

Another major change you can observe during metamorphosis is the disappearance of the tail through apoptosis, programmed cell death. A combination of apoptosis and growth also leads to the remodeling of other parts of the tadpole’s body like the head and the gut, resulting in a froglet with a very different morphology from the tadpole.

Tree frog tadpoles developing in eggs

Tree frog tadpoles developing in eggs

Lifecycle of a Frog

Most frogs reproduce during the rainy season when ponds are flooded with water. Tadpoles, which often have a very different diet from adults, are a good way of taking advantage of plentiful algae and vegetation in the water so that the larvae don’t need to hunt for insects when they are very tiny and vulnerable to predators. Eggs are laid by the female and fertilized by the male outside her body. Many species of frogs leave their eggs behind, either in water or on vegetation close to the water, and do not take care of the offspring. Eggs are laid en masse in protective jelly. Initially, the embryos absorb their reserves of yolk. Once the embryo has developed into a tadpole, the jelly dissolves and the tadpole wriggles out of its protective membrane

Tadpoles of many species are herbivorous, feeding on plant vegetation. Some tadpoles are practically filter feeders, constantly swallowing water and feeding off the algae. Some frogs have a more specialized diet. Certain poison dart frogs take care of their offspring, once the tadpole is hatched the parent carries it on its back to a flooded bromeliad. The female frog lays unfertilized eggs in the water, which the tadpole eats.

Juvenile froglet completing its metamorphosis

Juvenile froglet completing its metamorphosis

Raising tadpoles

If you're raising tadpoles native to your region as a science project, make sure you check the laws of your country or state to ensure that collecting them from the wild is legal. Never release non-native species into the wild! When breeding frogs in captivity, it is often necessary to simulate the rainy season by putting the adult frogs in a rain chamber. This stimulates them to breed and once the eggs are laid they need to be taken care of and raised. This can be done in a suitably sized aquarium, the size of which depends on the size and number of tadpoles. Clean water is of the utmost importance when raising tadpoles, it should either be gently filtered or a 50% water change should be carried out daily. If tap water is used it must be dechlorinated with an aquarium water treatment sold for aquarium fish. The temperature of the water will depend on the species. Optimum water hardness also varies depending on the frog. Frogs from the Amazon rainforest (such as poison dart frogs or certain tree frogs) will usually do better in soft water.

As the tadpoles begin to metamorphose it is good to provide them with floating islands, either natural or plastic plants, so they can rest out of the water as they lose their gills and start breathing atmospheric air.

Feeding tadpoles also depends on the species and should be researched for the particular tadpole you are rearing. Boiled lettuce is often recommended for herbivorous species, crushed fish flakes, or algae tablets also make good tadpole food.

Surinam toad with eggs embedded in the skin

Surinam toad with eggs embedded in the skin

Some Frogs Don't Have a Tadpole Stage

Although the vast majority of frogs and toads go through the tadpole stage, there are exceptions to every rule and there are several families of frogs with direct development from egg to froglet. In some frogs, the eggs are carried by the mother until froglets emerge. One such frog is the very bizarre-looking Suriname toad, Pipa pipa, in which fertilized eggs are rolled onto the frog’s back where they become enclosed in tissue, and develop under the frog’s skin until little froglets emerge at the end of the cycle.

Froglets developed embedded in the skin of the surinam toad

Froglets developed embedded in the skin of the surinam toad

Comments on March 02, 2018:

I got the useful information i need here, despite the fact that this is my first time. I would like to get more......................keep it up

Nicky on December 31, 2017:

I like this hub page alot...thanks aa lite for this wonderful information and to help me in my assignment...

Marie Alana from Ohio on March 16, 2013:

I like this hubs pictures. They are very fascinating! I did a hub like this. You should come check out my cute paint pictures and tell me what you think.

aa lite (author) from London on September 19, 2012:

Hi Tina,

It does depend a little bit on how big the tadpoles are, also where you are writing from which will determine the probable species of you tadpoles. I am going to assume they are a common tadpole in the US, and that they are small at the moment. If so they will either nibble on green vegetables, or eat algae and other microscopic organisms in the water.

You can feed them on lettuce and other edible leaves that you either soften by freezing, then defrosting, or by pouring a little bit of boiling water over. You can also buy algae tablets or flakes for fish in a pet store, crush them and feed small amounts to the tadpoles.

If they are very young and small, you can only have a couple of inches of water. Then add a little bit each day. Don't use chlorinated water from the tap. If you have access to pond water than use that.

If they are big, or when they grow, you might like to add an air stone connected to a simple pump that will keep the water oxygenated and which you can buy in a petstore, or in a place like walmart most likely.

Good luck!

tina on September 19, 2012:

i brought in my lilly pad from out side and put it in a fish tank and i found five tadpoles. what im asking is how do i take care of them. how much water do i leave in my tank and what do i feed them. it's a ten gallon tank.

Judy Specht from California on August 19, 2012:

Very interesting hub. When our kids were young we collected poly wogs from the creek and raised them to eat the bugs in the garden. The loved it. Am having a bad go with bugs in the garden, guess I should go to the creek and collect a frog or two. Thumbs up and useful is my vote.

aa lite (author) from London on May 21, 2012:

Thanks for visiting Phil, frogs are a bit of a passion of mine, as you can tell.

Phil Plasma from Montreal, Quebec on May 21, 2012:

Very comprehensive hub, great reading - especially for those of us who only have the rare occasion (if at all) of encountering tadpoles. Voted up and interesting.

aa lite (author) from London on May 19, 2012:

Lol Excellent! Thanks for stopping by.

The Logician from then to now on on May 19, 2012:

Great Hub aa ! Brings to mind a few tidbits of information you left out...

What kind of pole is short and floppy?

A tadpole!

Why did the tadpole feel lonely?

Because he was newt to the area!

What's the world weakest animal?

A frog, he croaks if you even touch him!

What did the bus conductor say to the frog?

Hop on!