Do Frogs Play Dead?

Amphibians use various survival tactics in the wild, ranging from inherent genetic traits to interesting behaviors and habits. Frogs often appear to be dead but leap back to life after a short time frame. These odd occurrences have led many animal lovers to wonder if frogs play dead.

Frogs may play dead if they have no other way to escape predators. The survival tactic is technically referred to as thanatosis and is practiced by many animals, including frogs. Appearing to be dead generally deters predators in the wild, and frogs regain normal behavior once the threat has passed.

Frogs play dead as a defence mechanism. While frogs are more likely to use camouflage, toxins, and coloration for evading danger, frogs may play dead when there are no other options. If a predator has still managed to spot them in their natural habitat and is fairly close by, frogs may resort to playing dead hoping that the predator will leave them be.

While it is not the most common survival tactic used by frogs, playing dead is still a fairly universal technique. Join me as I discuss how frogs play dead, how it helps them survive, and for how long they typically play dead.

Why Do Frogs Play Dead?

Frogs generally play dead in hopes that predators that my have seen them will lose interest since many predators prefer live food. Frogs may also play dead in hopes that they can be overlooked by predators hunting. 

Predators in the wild do not typically seek out specific animals. They generally watch out for obvious signs of life, such as movement or sound. If predators do not spot any movement or obvious signs of life nearby, they are likely to pass by and move on to another area. 

Finding dead animals is also not ideal for predators, as they value fresh and live prey. Since predators generally prefer to hunt, kill, and eat their prey in the wild, they may not be interested if they spot a frog that appears to be dead.

How Long Do Frogs Play Dead?

Frogs generally play dead for short time frames, only appearing to be deceased long enough to evade potential dangers. They generally remain in this state until the predator in question has passed by and moved on to another area, after which they return to their usual activity. 

How to Know if a Frog is Dead or Playing Dead-min
A Spring Peeper That Played Dead When I Found It

The Spring Peeper I found in the photo above was hanging on the tree branch until I got too close. It fell to the ground and played dead. I left it alone since I did not want to cause it stress, and when I came back a few minutes later it was hiding among the leaf litter.

A National Geographics team observed a few cases of frogs playing dead over the years. For example, they observed a litter of Leaf Frogs (Ischnocnema aff. henselii), located in Southern Brazil. According to a team led by Vinicius Batista, a biologist of the State University of Maringa in Brazil, the frogs assumed an exaggerated death position and overall state for approximately 2 minutes. 

How Do Frogs Play Dead?

Frogs typically play dead by taking on exaggerated death poses and characteristics, like suddenly falling, lying on their back or stomach, and slow their breathing. Depending on the context, it can be easy to mistake a frog playing dead for genuine death.

Baby American Toad Playing Dead-min
A Young Toad I Found Playing Dead, Lying Still on a Leaf

Frogs may lay on their backs and throw their limbs outwards, with the front legs facing up and the hind legs facing down. Frogs make their bodies incredibly rigid, which decreases or ceases visible muscle movement and further aids the impression of death. They also slow their breathing and functions to a minimum to give the illusion of death. 

How To Tell If a Frog Is Playing Dead

Although it can be quite easy for a frog to trick predators into thinking that it is dead, there are numerous differences between a dead frog and a frog playing dead. A dead animal will have a wide range of unique characteristics, involving not only their position and movement but their overall appearance, behavior, and smell. 

This table can give you a quick overview of the typical characteristics of a deceased frog vs a frog playing dead:

CharacteristicDeceased FrogFrog Playing Dead
Breathing No breathing Slowed breathing 
Heart rateNo heart rate Slowed heart rate
Movement Rigid, no movementRigid, movement breathing
Weight Skinny and decayingHealthy weight 
Eyes Closed Closed or open
Mouth Open, tongue hanging outClosed or open
Position Belly-up, limbs outwardsBelly-up, limbs outwards
Wounds Cuts, bruising, bloodNo serious wounds
Skin color Discoloration, dull or pale skinNormal skin color
Nearby pests Maggots and flies are presentNo pests present 
Odor Rotten or foul odorNo smell or natural odor
Timespan PermanentMomentary

As seen above, there are plenty of signs and indicators to dictate whether a frog is genuinely deceased or if it is pretending to be dead to ensure its survival. Use these signs and cues to tell if you have discovered an unfortunate little frog or if it is simply trying to protect itself from harm. This is true for frogs in the wild as well as pet frogs that may also play dead.

Frogs Sleeping vs Hibernating vs. Playing Dead

Frogs may also appear dead when they are sleeping in the Spring or Summer, or when they are hibernating throughout the Fall or Winter. Frogs may also estivate throughout hot seasons in some regions.

If they are hibernating or estivating they will remain in the same location for weeks, depending on the type of frog. Below are the most common areas for hibernation or estivation periods, which differ from frogs playing dead (CTNF). Frogs playing dead generally assume a deceased position whenever they are in danger, meaning they could be found in this state anywhere throughout their habitat. 

Arboreal FrogsTerrestrial FrogsAquatic Frogs
Under leaf piles or logs, and at the base of trees.Underground in crevices and tunnels, or under rocks; 3 feet below the frost line.Below freezing water; in cold waters below 39°F.

The above spaces are generally suitable for frogs hibernating or estivating, but the methods applied during these time frames differ from frogs playing dead. Frogs utilize fascinating physiological survival tactics during these periods to ensure their longevity. These changes and behaviors are not typically observed in frogs playing dead. Be sure to leave hibernating frogs alone.

More About Frogs Playing Dead

Frogs often play dead when they are in danger, specifically when they feel they could be eaten or attacked by a predator. Playing dead, formally referred to as thanatosis, is one of the oldest and most classic survival tactics used in the wild practiced by many animals across various species. 

Although frogs may not always employ this survival tactic, they play dead when necessary. Frogs are incredibly skilled at slowing down their heart rates, breathing rates, movement, and much more. Playing dead is a simple and classic survival technique that has been around for countless years and has helped numerous species stand the test of time. 

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