What do Tadpoles Eat: In the Wild and as Pets

We’re taught as kids the basics behind the life cycle of a frog. If you’ve ever kept them as pets you’ll know that it’s much more difficult than it looks to raise tadpoles.

Before a frog is fully developed it spends many weeks growing. It’s a tadpole’s job to search for food to get enough energy to grow.

Over time, their appearance will change and their diet will also change. This can make looking after them particularly difficult as you need to keep up with their changing needs. They are best kept by people who are familiar with fish keeping, to avoid any beginner mistakes.

It’s important to feed them the right foods at the right time, different nutrients become important as they grow through various stages.

Starting life as a herbivore, their diet is quite simple, but as they grow and develop into omnivores things get more complicated. By the time they become a frog their diet will be almost completely carnivorous.

Check Out Our Recommended Tadpole Food Here

What Do Tadpoles Eat?

Tadpole in the Wild
Tadpole in the Wild

Most tadpoles are fully aquatic, but there are some that are semiterrestrial (such as the Indirana beddomii).

They are most commonly found in ponds and lakes that are surrounded by algae and plants which offer them protection from predators.

Different species prefer slightly different environments. Colder species are found in waters ranging from 40-75°F. Keeping water at the higher end of this range will increase their growth rate, but if the temperature is too high then it can be harmful.

Tadpoles, like many other freshwater animals, are omnivores throughout most of their life. The most common foods they’ll come across are vegetation, dead insects, water striders, and sometimes small fish. Their diet changes again as they develop into frogs/toads, and they become almost exclusively carnivorous.

The range of food available means that we still don’t know everything that tadpoles eat in the wild.

However, they do not start life as omnivores. While hatching, they feed on their egg’s yolk sack which is high in protein to help them grow quickly. When the yolk is finished they need to find food themselves.

Newly hatched babies are small; it’s hard to find other animals that are small enough to eat so they eat algae. When they’re young, they have a long coiled intestine which is specifically designed for digesting vegetation and extracting proteins and calcium.

As they grow they can move onto plant leaves/stems and later on they can manage small insects.
Once they are mature tadpoles, they will eat almost anything they can fit into their mouths. This helps them to find as much food as possible so that there’s more energy available for faster growth.

What Can You Feed Tadpoles in an Aquarium?

Tadpole in an Aquarium

In order to keep tadpoles healthy and ensure that they feed regularly, their aquarium needs to resemble their natural habitat as closely as possible.

Luckily they can survive in various water parameters, but a pH of 6-8 is ideal along with slightly hard water. As with any tank, keep nitrates as low as possible.

You don’t need a strong current because the ponds they live in are usually still. It’s easier for algae and pollutants to build up in the water when there’s no movement, so keep your tank clean and do water changes weekly to keep the tank healthy and remove nitrates.

It’s important to add plants to the aquarium as they perform a variety of useful roles. They keep the water clean, act as a secondary food source and also give the tadpoles a safe area to hide.

When they have somewhere they can hide they become more comfortable in the tank and less likely to refuse food.

They will feed on your tank’s plants so be prepared for them to take some damage. Hardy, fast-growing plants, (such as hornwort) will be more likely to survive.

Keep an area of the tank above the water’s surface so that they can climb out of the water when they grow legs and start showing semiterrestrial behaviors.

Check Out Our Recommended Tadpole Food Here

You can use large rocks or an area of substrate reaching above the surface of the water, like a shoreline. If you use rocks, make sure they are secure and unlikely to move when they move on and off.

As frogs they obviously jump, so you might want to keep the water level low and use a deep tank.

The food you feed them depends on their maturity. Babies will be happy with store-bought fish foods, especially flake foods because they’re easy to break up. Some stores sell foods made specifically for tadpoles.

While getting food from stores is convenient, there’s plenty you can use to feed them within your home. You can find many recipes online for homemade fish foods, or simply adding uncooked vegetables into the tank will be popular.

As they get older, the size of the food can increase, so you can start introducing larvae and dead insects to their diet. If these new foods go uneaten then they might not be ready, just try again the following week.

Start introducing these foods when they’re around 3 or 4 weeks old. They can vary in size depending on the species, so it’s better to use age to judge when changing their diet. Regularly switching up their food keeps feeding times interesting, while giving them all of the nutrients they need.

Protein is an important resource for growth, so it is particularly important for tadpoles because they are growing throughout their lifespan; from hatching to metamorphosis (turning into a frog/toad).

Feeding them animal matter will give them the protein they need. Easy ways to do this are through bloodworms and aphids, but any small insects will do. Don’t add any meats into the tank that they wouldn’t come across naturally (such as farm animals) because it will be hard for them to digest.

Protein is most important while they develop legs (5-9 weeks). During this time, gradually add more animal matter to their diet to ease them into the carnivorous frog lifestyle.

One hour after feeding them, check the tank again to see if all the food has been eaten. If not, scoop the leftovers out to prevent it from decaying and polluting the water.

Below is a list of foods that you can feed your tadpoles:

  • Algae Wafers
  • Aphids
  • Bloodworms
  • Boiled Eggs
  • Crickets
  • Fish Food Flakes
  • Fish Food Pellets
  • Frozen Foods
  • Fruit
  • Fruit Flies
  • Green Vegetables
  • Homemade Fish Food
  • Insect Larvae
  • Meal Worms
  • Small Fish

When and How Often Do Tadpoles Eat?

Your tadpoles will need to be fed regularly. Since they’re growing they’ll always be searching for food; one feed session every day will keep them healthy.

Some people suggest that you should feed them every other day, but in larger amounts. This is not great advice because they won’t be able to eat all of the food and the excess will just sit on the bottom of the tank and decay.

If any food is left in the tank an hour after feeding, then you are probably over-feeding them. Remove the excess food to keep the water clean.

There is no set amount of food to feed them, as different people use different foods. One pinch of flake food is enough to keep them happy, use this to judge the amounts of other foods. Watch how much they each and adjust the amount you feed them accordingly.

A regular routine isn’t essential. Their main purpose in life is to eat so that they can grow. This means that they will always be on the lookout for food regardless of when you add it to the tank.

Once they have sprouted arms you can hold off on the feeding for a while. They will start to absorb their tail for nutrients, you will notice it begin to shrink. Start feeding them again when the tail has nearly disappeared.

You can continue to feed them fish flakes, live and frozen foods, or any of the foods on the list above.

Lifecycle of a Tadpole to Frog

Development of a Tadpole

A tadpole isn’t a permanent form; it is just a stepping stone from egg to adulthood in the lifecycle of a frog.

Food and hormones are the main drivers for tadpole development. There is some degree of consistency between development times, but species, water quality, and nutrition all play a big part. A frog begins to develop through the process of metamorphose, but how does this happen?

As time goes on, they change. An easy way to understand this is by thinking of them undergoing their own small lifecycle, before reaching frog status.

They usually start to hatch in the spring, but the biggest populations will be found in summer. A newly hatched tadpole will latch onto plants (where it’s safe) and eat any leftover yolk from their egg.

At this age, they are very vulnerable to the elements and predators, to an extent where many of them will die.

Those that reach ten days old will begin swimming around, looking for more food now that the yolk has run out. Their diet will be strictly herbivorous, and they won’t swim far from the safety of the plants.

By three or four weeks old they will start to lose their gills and grow small teeth. These teeth now allow them to eat bigger and harder foods.

Through weeks five to nine, they will start eating insects alongside the plants. Their organs will have grown longer, providing a bigger area to digest nutrients.

It’s around this time that little limbs start emerging while their head and body grow to accommodate them. They now look like frogs, but they’re smaller and have a tail trailing behind them.

At week twelve they are much bigger. The tail is now gone, it has been digested for nutrients. They can leave the water and start hopping about on land (or the rocks in your tank or pond). This is the final stage of their life cycle.

From week thirteen onwards they are now frogs. It’s now their job to go and lay eggs in the water themselves, completing the life cycle of a frog.

Frog Spawn
Frog Spawn

Summary

By now you should know that the foods you give to your tadpoles will change based on their age.

Plants and algae are ideal for newly hatched babies, while older species can enjoy animal matter such as worms and insects.

Though their dietary needs can seem intimidating, they eat similar foods to fish, and lots of the food can be found in your home.

It can be a lot of work to raise healthy tadpoles due to the regular changes to their diet, but once they have grown into healthy frogs you’ll realize that all of the work was worth it.

What do you feed your tadpoles? Let us know in the comments section below…

About Robert 394 Articles
Robert Woods is the creator of FishKeeping World, a third-generation fish keeper, and a graduate in animal welfare and behavior. He is also a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America, and the Nature Conservancy.

14 Comments

  1. Linda says:

    We have left the plastic black cover on our large swimming pool this year. Of course it is filled with rainwater and natural debris. The hordes of frogs around our area have gifted us with a swarm of tadpoles. It can get very hot out there during the day and I’m wondering if the water heats up too much for them. There are pretty deep spots (maybe 3 feet) and some shallower spots. I have added a bit of hose water to maybe cool it a bit but not sure if this matters. I also threw in some lettuce and grass and some various leafy stems to eat, give shade or hide under. Never thought I’d be tending a tadpole farm but here I am 🙂 Any advice would be appreciated.

    • Tracey says:

      Be careful with water from the hose. It is chlorinated and can kill the tadpoles. I made this mistake in my fountain :-/ My tadpole loved the figs dropping in the the nearby tree! If it sits for a day in a container I think its safer.

  2. Ruby Corder says:

    We found tadpoles growing in our large wheel narrow. I have been crushing medicated goat pellets and chicken laying crumbles (alternating the two) and that is what I have been feeding the tadpoles. There are several that now have both front and back legs. It has been awesome watching them grow!

  3. Jessica Shaw says:

    Just like Linda I too have a tadpole farm in my pool and am loving every minute of it but there’s been no rain and the pool water is getting hot. Can I add any water in it? I know u said not to use the hose. I found 2 dead tadpoles out of 100s that I have but I’m really upset and want to prevent anymore.

    • Fishkeeping World says:

      Hi Jessica, if you make sure all the parameters are exactly the same before adding the water, it should be fine. Thanks, Robert

  4. Brian Collinson says:

    As a small boy in the sixties I found that a weed called chickweed was sufficient to see them through to adulthood. We had a change of neighbours recently and the new owners have destroyed their pond which has been used by frogs for 40+ years. Yesterday three frogs turned up in my garden, so I quickly formed a small basin with rainwater and this morning I have brand new tadpole spawn.

  5. Sherry Warner says:

    We found some tadpole eggs at a pond and brought 3 home so our daughter can watch their development {We have had fish tanks in the past}. It has been awesome watching them grow. we feed them celery leaves right now and will be feeding them frog food soon after their 3-4 weeks. They have feeding fringes then quiet days of growing then eat and eat again, is the pattern they are showing. they are helping us through the COVID-19 isolation.

  6. John Oathout says:

    My tree frog friends sing their hearts out every spring for me then lay eggs in nearly all my rain barrels. I end up with hundreds if not thousands of them. So that they don’t end up as fertilizer when I water I fish net them out and then add them to a large pond I have next to the barrels. That’s their home and they seem quite happy there under the partial shade of a wild mulberry tree sprout. Some tiny wild water plants grow in the pond which contributes to that ecosystem along with some snails and water bugs. I feed them fish flakes now and then and they seem to love it. Skimming the surface for the flake bits. Their mouths are tiny so I grind the flakes into even smaller bits. I love my little tadpole / frog oasis!

  7. Todd says:

    I have about 1,000 tadpoles in a small wading pool. I do not have an aerator for it. I am a bit concerned about the amount. Do tadpoles usually do well in a crowded space without aeration? Thanks.

  8. Tanya says:

    I found tadpoles in a nearby stormwater runoff. I collected about 12 and put them into my uninhabited pond.(no fish but plenty of mosquito larvae) My husband wants me to put them back because he doesn’t want frogs in the swimming pool. What are the chances that frogs will suicide into the saltwater pool?

  9. Dawn Bennett says:

    I’m just now trying to harvest some tadpoles from a large tub that collects rainwatrd, leaves rocks and omg algae. The tadpoles are dying as they have their legs and tiny tales left. Why?
    I’ve been able to save only one so far and put it into aquarium with rocks, soon to add plants and algae disks, is this the right thing to do?

  10. Jennifer says:

    A low spot in my driveway turned into a small “pond.” When I noticed we had tadpoles, I got some out for my boys to watch. I’ve noticed the tadpoles in the pond are all gone now. We have found several tiny frogs so I’m assuming they completed their metamorphosis. However, the tadpoles in the tank are just now starting to grow legs and not even all of them are doing that. Is it because of the difference in environment? I fed them algae at first. Then I had some blood worms and now I’m feeding them the crumbs at the bottom of my container of crickets or fish food pellets. I also throw an algae wafer or two in since they seem to like those or I take a net and get some algae from the pond. I used rocks from the driveway and transplanted a plant that had grown up in our pond for them. I use rainwater for their water changes and I only do about a 3/4 water change. My boys are homeschooled and this is a project for them. One of the questions they are trying to answer is why the frogs in the tank are developing more slowly. Thank you in advance for your help.

  11. G. says:

    I have over a hundred tadpoles in various sizes that I saved from puddles drying up after the flooding rains here..They eat boiled cabbage and I am not sure what to do with them.There are no ponds around just the ocean and they cannot live in salt water..They have already eaten 2 heads of cabbage in 2 weeks..and they need something else to eat..

  12. Sallie says:

    Green tree frogs spawned in my cleaned out spa which was filled with water from our local Barron Gorge , so no chemicals were in the water as my pool man had a Xmas party to go to and still hasn’t come back !!
    So I have a few clutches of green tree tadpoles and they are very happy to eat organic spinach which I eat every day , whether you boil it or freeze it , or put in in raw I’ve had great success, no dead tadpoles and once they are 5 weeks ish old I feed every other day some protein like hard boiled egg yolk and I mix it with the spinach chopped finely for their little froglet mouths to eat !! I love watching and listening to them munch up their dinner , I’m in the tropics and feed twice a day the youngest and once they grow their back legs I move them to another container with live plants, coral, river rocks and a few crystals and they grow up and hop away !!! Then hang in my garden as it’s a great ecosystem! If frogs have spawned in your garden then you have a magical ecosystem that has allowed them to thrive so well done !! Enjoy ?

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