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What Do Tadpoles Eat in the Wild and as Pets?

Nicole Cosgrove

June 18, 2021

Tadpoles do not stay tadpoles for long, and if you’ve ever raised frogs, you’ll know that tadpoles can be quite a challenge. Tadpoles will usually slowly transform into frogs after only a couple of weeks, depending on the species, and they’ll need all the nutrition that they can get during this time in order to turn into healthy, happy frogs.

It’s important to remember that while tadpoles will be frogs one day, they aren’t yet, and they have vastly different dietary needs than that of frogs. So, while they are going through this important developmental stage, they have unique needs that can present a challenge when raising them as pets. In this article, we’ll take a look at what tadpoles eat naturally in the wild and how you can replicate that as closely as possible when keeping them as pets.

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What do tadpoles eat in the wild?

Tadpoles start their lives almost completely herbivorous, and in the beginning stages, their diet is fairly simple. They then have a more omnivorous lifestyle, and by the time they become frogs, they are almost exclusively carnivores. Tadpoles will usually be confined in or stay in a small area of the pond that they were born in and feed on the surrounding algae. As they grow larger, their diet expands too, and they’ll begin to nibble on other plants and moss and gradually begin to eat insects or larvae.

There is a massive range of food that tadpoles could possibly eat, depending on where they are born, and as such, experts are still not completely sure of everything that these little critters feed on.

What we do know is that tadpoles will feed on their egg’s yolk sack initially. This is packed with protein, and when it’s finished, they will need to start fending for themselves. This is when they will move on to algae, and their intestine is long and specially formed to digest vegetation. Once they are mature tadpoles, their intestine shortens, and they will eat whatever can fit into their mouths, be it plants, leaves, moss, or small insects.

tadpoles eating
Image Credit: Pixabay

What to feed tadpoles as pets?

It’s important to note that tadpoles in captivity, as in the wild, have different dietary needs depending on their stage of life. If you are raising tadpoles as pets, you’ll need to consider this and adjust their diet accordingly.

While the timelines can vary somewhat depending on species, the following is a general guideline as to what to feed tadpoles during their first few weeks of life:

  • Newly hatched. There is not much that you can feed tadpoles during the first few days after they’ve hatched, and if anything, they’ll feed off of the algae available in your tank.
  • 1-2 weeks. At this point, tadpoles are growing rapidly and have eaten all their egg’s yolk. They will need to be fed a variety of greens, including lettuce, broccoli, or small amounts of fish food or algae flakes. There are also commercially made tadpole pellets that are made especially for growing tadpoles.
  • 2-4 weeks. This is the final stage of rapid growth for most tadpoles, and they will begin to eat more insects and insect larvae and less plant matter. They can still be fed on small amounts of pellets, algae, and plant matter, but you can begin adding brine shrimp flakes, bloodworms, and crickets.

Once your tadpole has grown its legs and is living a largely terrestrial life, you can begin feeding them on a standard frog diet, which is largely carnivorous. Depending on the stage that they are at, the following foods are all ideal for growing tadpoles:

  • Algae
  • Algae flakes
  • Lettuce
  • Broccoli
  • Fish flakes
  • Aphids
  • Bloodworms
  • Crickets
  • Pellets
  • Fruit flies
  • Insect larvae
  • Mealworms
tadpole closeup
Image Credit: Pixabay

How often should you feed tadpoles?

Tadpoles grow fast, evidenced by the fact that after just a few weeks, they are already almost frogs! With this rapid growth comes a big appetite, and they’ll need to be fed a large amount once a day to keep them healthy. Be careful of overfeeding, as the uneaten food can sink to the bottom of their tank and begin to decay, causing a filthy tank in no time. If there is a large amount of food left an hour or two after feeding, you are likely giving them too much.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine exact amounts, as it depends on the age and species of tadpole, as well as the food you are giving them. A tiny pinch of flakes per day is a good rough estimate for a tadpole that is a week or two old, and you can estimate other foods by using this as a rough metric. Again, the best way is to check the amounts left over after feeding and then adjust accordingly.

Once your tadpoles have begun to sprout legs, you can begin feeding them less for a while. They no longer need their tail and will begin absorbing it for nutrients, and you can begin normal feeding again once their tail has almost disappeared.

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Final Thoughts

The transformation of a tadpole into a fully-fledged frog is a fascinating process to watch. This small window of life as a tadpole is just a tiny portion of a frog’s lifecycle, but so much growth takes place in these few weeks.

A tadpole’s diet changes almost as rapidly as their outer appearance, and the foods you give them need to be adjusted based on their age, just as would naturally occur in the wild. As long as this protocol is closely adhered to, looking after and feeding tadpoles in captivity is not as complicated as it may seem, and soon enough, you’ll have a fully-grown frog on your hands that will be worth the effort!


Featured Image Credit: Pixabay

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.