White’s Tree Frogs (Litoria caerulea) have a well deserved reputation as the most popular choice of tree frog for hobbyists new to keeping amphibians, being an attractive and docile species with excellent appetites, long lifespans and hardy dispositions. They are so named in honour of John White, the naturalist who first identified and described the frog in 1790 when he discovered them in their native habitats in north eastern Australia and south New Guinea, where they favour humid and tropical rainforest-type environments. Since then, human- introduced populations have been confirmed in Florida and surrounding regions of the USA, while a small population once found in New Zealand is now thought to have died out. White’s tree frogs first became established as captive pets by enthusiasts in the USA during the 1970’s and 80’s, who quickly discovered that these hardy frogs made excellent and entertaining vivarium subjects that bred readily and could live to 15 or 16 years old if well cared for. Soon after, captive bred baby White’s started to become widely available in Europe, and rapidly became massively popular and relatively inexpensive exotic pets.
White’s are quite a large and robust species of arboreal tree frog, with adults reaching between 3-5 inches in length (females are slightly bigger than males), and healthy specimens often have a podgy appearance, hence their other nickname of ‘Dumpy tree frog’. Like many tropical amphibians, White’s have the ability to change their skin colour in accordance with their surroundings, depending on factors such as humidity, temperature and light exposure, and can vary from a lush apple green to deep earthy brown and occasionally vivid shades of blue and turquoise, often with white or yellow speckles along their flanks and creamy coloured undersides. They have broad heads with olive or brown coloured eyes with horizontal irises, and the paratoid glands, which produce a protective liquid secretion that is rubbed over the skin, can be seen as large smooth bulges above the tempanic (ear) membrane on either side of the head. Males possess a characteristic raucous call, which can often be heard in response to music or the sound of rainfall when claiming territory or courting a mate. Females will also call occasionally, but this is usually in response to some form of irritation or distress, and is usually more like a deep ‘squeaking’ compared to the males’ ‘barking’.
White’s tree frogs can be housed in pairs or small groups in large, arboreal style glass terrariums. An adult pair will require a minimum space of 45x45x60cm, although a bigger terrarium will be appreciated by these frogs, which tend to sleep during the daytime but become very active at night and during feeding times. Like most frogs, White’s are very sensitive to noise and vibration, so the terrarium should be positioned in a quiet area of the home away from TV speakers or stereos, and out of draughts and direct sunlight. The terrarium itself should be furnished with a deep layer of humidity retaining substrate such as coco fibre mixed with coarse grade orchid bark, and decorated with a variety of sturdy branches for the frogs to climb and bask on. Artificial plants are often used with this species, as being so heavy and often clumsy in the way they move, White’s tend to crush and trample live plants. Artificial silk and plastic plants can be bought relatively inexpensively from reptile supply shops and home craft stores, and an attractive rainforest-type environment can be created incorporating realistic vines, bromeliads and orchid and lily flowers. The advantage of using such foliage is that they can be removed and cleaned easily, and will not wither and die, although they may end up looking a bit tattered after a few months of being squashed by the frogs! If the keeper does decide to use live plants, they should select species that are sturdy and resilient so they can stand up to the weight of the frogs jumping and climbing on them. Large bromeliads often work well, while sphagnum moss on the floor or background of the terrarium is useful in retaining humidity. All live plants should be thoroughly washed and repotted into a fertiliser and pesticide free growth medium such as plantation soil before being placed in the tree frog terrarium.
A large water bowl should be positioned on the terrarium floor and cleaned and refilled with dechlorinated or clean rainwater every day, and the glass terrarium walls rinsed down at the same time. This is of particular importance in White’s, as they are susceptible to developing fungal infections and the bacterial skin disorder known as ‘red leg’, which is associated with dirty water bowls and terrarium conditions. Humidity levels inside the terrarium should be maintained between 45-70% which is best achieved by misting the enclosure lightly each day or as often as needed in warmer weather using a hand-held spray bottle.
Lighting is usually provided by means of using a terrarium-specific canopy lighting system, or using dome reflectors over the mesh top of the terrarium itself. A low-wattage basking bulb such as the 15 or 25 watt Exo-Terra Sun Glo bulbs can be used to maintain an ambient temperature of 75-82°F, with a warm basking spot of around 85°F during the daytime, and allowing for a 5-7°F drop at night. As for UV lighting, for many years it was believed that tree frogs in captivity would thrive and breed without exposure to full spectrum ultraviolet lighting, however recent research carried out over the past couple of years is now pointing to an ever-stronger indication that many tropical and semi-tropical species at least do need daily UV light in order for vitamin D3 synthesis and therefore correct calcium metabolism to take place, and for the regulation of the frogs’ biological clocks. Because of this, I recommend using a 5% full spectrum UV compact bulb or full-length fluorescent tube for a photoperiod of 8-10 hours per day for White’s tree frogs, although the frogs should always have access to a shady area in which they can rest away from the light if they so choose.
White’s tree frogs love nothing more than eating, and are not exactly fussy about what they can fit in their mouths. A varied diet of gutloaded brown crickets, small locusts, waxmoths, mealworms and earthworms should be provided with twice-weekly supplementation using a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral formula such as VetArk’s Nutrobal one on feed, and a tree frog specific formula such as Komodo’s Tree Frog Insect Dusting Powder on the next. All insect prey should be gutloaded on a mixture of bran, crushed cat biscuits or fish flake food and grated carrot to maximise their nutritional value and provide the full complement of micro and macro nutrients the frogs require. Adult White’s tree frogs will do well on 2-3 feeder insects every other day, and should be offered food in the evening when they are just waking up and becoming active for the night. Great care should be taken not to overfeed White’s, who are one of nature’s gluttons and will happily gobble up more food than is good for them given the chance, resulting in one of the most significant health problems associated with this species – obesity. Keepers should encourage your White’s to actively hunt for their food by releasing feeder insects into the enclosure so that they have to search and explore to find their meals, and can monitor their frogs body’ conditions by looking at the pad of fat on the frog’s head where the paratoid gland is – in a healthy frog this should be plump and round, but if it becomes so large and flabby that it begins to hang down over the its’ tempanic membrane and eyes, then this is a sign that the frog is becoming dangerously overweight and it’s food intake should be gradually restricted until it reaches a healthier body condition. It is also worth pointing out that their ferocious appetites are the main reason why White’s are not at all suitable for housing in community vivariums – any smaller frogs and lizards sharing their habitat will be seen as prey and almost certainly eaten.
White’s become sexually mature at 2 years old, although ideally keepers should wait until their frogs are in their third year before attempting to breed them in order to ensure they have developed sufficient fat stores to undergo the required cooling period safely. Adult males are typically slightly smaller than females, and will develop characteristic darkened areas on the insides of their thumbs, known as nuptial pads, which he uses to grip onto the female when in amplexus (the mating embrace when males hold onto the females from behind). They are one of the easiest pet tree frogs to breed successfully, and keepers can stimulate their adults to reproduce naturally in the terrarium by replicating the seasonal environmental changes they would experience in the wild.
Natural spawning is most easily achieved by first withholding the frogs’ daily feeds for 5 days prior to cooling in order to allow their digestive tracts to empty, and then gradually reducing the terrarium to an ambient temperature of around 68°F during the day and 66°F at night for a period of 4 weeks, turning the UV lighting off completely during this time and using only a low wattage ‘night-time’ (red or purple coloured glass) bulb to heat the vivarium. Most White’s will leave their arboreal perches and basking spots and will rest on the terrarium floor, so should be provided with cork bark hides and sphagnum moss ‘beds’ to sit in. They should not be fed at all, although a clean water source will still be needed to prevent them from dehydrating, and the keeper must keep a careful watch over their frogs to ensure they are not becoming thin. Once the cooling period is complete, the ambient temperature can be slowly increased back to its normal range over a period of 7 days, and the normal UV photoperiod restored. Once the frogs have warmed up they should be offered regular generous meals of various gutloaded livefoods, with additional waxworms and the occasional pinky mouse being ideal for conditioning them for breeding. During this time, an egg-laying pool should be introduced to the terrarium – a large tray or plastic storage tub filled to a depth of 3 inches with rainwater heated to 84°F with a small aquarium heater works well, and should include a rock or branch that the frogs can use as an island to sit on and climb easily in and out of the pool. After 1-2 weeks, a regime of four times daily misting for several minutes at a time in order to thoroughly soak the terrarium in tepid water should stimulate the males to begin calling, and pairs should be found in amplexus shortly after.
The other method favoured by some keepers involves using an artificial rain chamber to stimulate their frogs to spawn. The adults are prepared for breeding using the same cooling method described above, and then moved into a separate, purpose designed terrarium to act as a rain chamber once they have been warmed up again. A rain chamber can be constructed from a glass terrarium or aquarium, complete with UV lighting and filled to a depth of about 3 inches with clean rain water heated to 84°F, and including several land areas made from rocks or sections of bog wood. The rain system itself is made from an external aquarium filter pump that draws water from the bottom of the tank and circulates it though a length of 1 inch PVC or aquarium airline piping fitted to the chamber’s ceiling that is perforated with small holes every 2cm along its length. As the water is pumped along the tube, it escapes in droplets from the holes and creates a rain-like effect inside the chamber, which is controlled by an electronic timer to activate the system to rain for 4-5 hours each evening. This system tends to work very well for stimulating White’s to reproduce, and is especially useful for encouraging pairs that are reluctant to breed using the natural terrarium method.
Females lay their 800-1500 eggs with their back ends submerged in the water, and the male uses his back legs to spread his sperm over them as they are laid. The fertilised eggs then sink to the bottom in a clump with the fertilised embryos appearing as black spheres inside a clear layer of protective jelly, and will typically hatch in 24-48 hours. Once all the tadpoles are out, they should be gently removed from the water using a spoon or fine fish net, and placed into a rearing tank. This should be a large aquarium or sturdy tub lit with a full spectrum UV tube for 12 hours a day, heated to 86°F, furnished with clean gravel and live aquatic plants, and filled with natural rain water. Water from a garden pond can also be used provided the keeper is 100% sure it is unpolluted, and carries the advantages of already being stocked with beneficial microflora, essential minerals, and tiny vertebrates for the tadpoles to feed on. The tadpoles can be reared on a variety of live aquatic foods such as daphnia, banana worms and micro worms, as well as small amounts of crushed fish flake food, and should metamorphose into froglets in about 4 weeks. Juveniles can be maintained in small plastic terrariums with mesh tops, furnished with plastic leaves, sphagnum moss and a petri dish of water until they are around 1 inch in length, at which point they can be moved into an adult-sized terrarium where they will spend the rest of their lives.