What Do Tadpoles Eat In The Wild?

This may seem confusing due to the abundant misinformation online, but I will explain it very simply: frogs eat different things depending on their life cycle stage. And wild tadpoles eat very different things from adult frogs.

In the wild, young tadpoles (0 to 6 weeks of age) generally feed on the remaining yolk of their egg until they can eat algae and phytoplankton. Once they grow feet, or after about 6 weeks of development, tadpoles become omnivores and also feed on zooplankton, aphids and ants.

Tadpoles living in the wild typically source their own food, irrespective of their developmental phase. However, their diet is closely linked with their metamorphic changes, as they slowly develop the feeding tools necessary for consuming certain prey types.

Below is an outline of typical tadpole diets at different ages:

Tadpole PhaseApproximate AgeTypical Diet 
Early 0 to 1 weekRemaining Egg Yolk
Mid 1 to 6 weeks Herbivore 
Final 6 weeks to froglet phaseOmnivore 

Keep in mind that there are over 7,400 known frog species around the world and that what frogs eat depends on their environment, the climate, and the time of year. Join me as I discuss what tadpoles living in the wild eat at different stages of their development, and which foods they should avoid for their own safety. 

Newborn Tadpole Phase

  • What Newborn Tadpoles Eat: Egg Yolk
  • Duration: Approximately 0 to 3 days

Newborn tadpoles typically feed off the remaining yolk of their egg which is located in their gut. This source of nourishment is generally sufficient in the wild, as tadpoles usually spend their first days as eggs in an aquatic environment. They cling to vegetation such as weeds and reeds until they develop tails to swim.

Young Tadpole Phase

Once the tadpoles have made it through their first week of their lives, they have developed tails and can begin roaming the surrounding waters searching for food sources. They are complete herbivores during this time and generally feed on various forms of aquatic vegetation.

Below are some of the most common types of vegetation that wild tadpoles consume:

  • Aquatic plants
  • Algae 
  • Cryptocoryne 
  • Detritus 
  • Duckweed 
  • Hornwort 
  • Moss 
  • Naturally decaying vegetation
  • Phytoplankton 
  • Pond weeds
  • Plankton 
  • Java fern
  • Salt-free seaweed
  • Spirulina 

Final Tadpole Phase

Tadpoles generally remain complete herbivores until they are approximately 6 weeks old or begin to develop feet. After they reach 6 weeks of age, they begin growing legs and develop more sophisticated digestive systems. This allows the tadpoles to adopt an omnivorous diet consisting of vegetation and animal-matter.

Below is a list of common carnivore food sources that omnivorous tadpoles follow in the wild: 

  • Ants 
  • Aphids 
  • Dragonfly eggs
  • Dragonfly larvae 
  • Fish eggs
  • Frog eggs
  • Mosquito larvae 
  • Redworms 
  • Tadpoles 
  • Larvae 
  • Minnows 
  • Newt eggs
  • Water Fleas
  • Wrigglers
  • Zooplankton 

These tadpoles may still feed on aquatic vegetation such as moss, algae, and plankton during this time. However, they need to consume meat-based foods to acquire the nutrients necessary for their ongoing development. Keep in mind that tadpoles do not eat the same kind of “meat” as humans.

Once the final tadpole phase is complete, these creatures transform into froglets that can live and breathe on land. Once frogs can leave the water, they are obligate carnivores and may slowly begin eating larger invertebrates, insects, and small vertebrates. Large adult frogs may also eat small mammals, reptiles, and fish as well (CTNF).

Risks Of Wild Tadpole Diets

Having a variety of food source options can have related risks, especially concerning the final tadpole phase, where tadpoles begin consuming insects, eggs, and small invertebrates. These lifeforms can carry various forms of bacteria and disease, which can either harm or kill wild tadpoles. 

Wild plants and insects can carry parasites as well, many of which can cause severe illness. The tadpoles could suffer from infections, sickness, diarrhea, or hookworms, and many of these cases can cause fatalities. 

Although consuming other tadpoles is not the best option, tadpoles may eat each other in some cases. This generally occurs when there is competition between the tadpoles due to insufficient food sources and overall lack of space in the habitat. 

While tadpoles have a wide selection of food options, they do not eat all types of foods within the same group. For example, tadpoles do not eat all algae types. A scientific study found that Blue-Green Algae (Anabaena Flos-Aquae) was digested better and promoted better growth overall.

What Can Wild Tadpoles Not Eat?

Despite having a wide range of food options, many plant and meat types are harmful to tadpoles. Such food options may be abundant in the wild, but tadpoles will likely avoid eating these items.

As a general rule, tadpoles living in the wild cannot eat food sources that are high in salt, artificial seasonings, and sugar. These food options can kill tadpoles irrespective of whether they live in the wild or in captivity. 

Tadpoles living in the wild may attempt to consume the remnants of human food such as canned meat. But, they cannot digest these foods and can die from their consumption. This risk is another reason why it is crucial to ensure that humans leave no trace behind when exploring wildlife habitats. 

Differences Between Wild and Captive Tadpole Diets

In most cases, tadpoles living in captivity cannot be fed the foods that wild tadpoles eat. They can be fed leafy greens such as kale, broccoli, rapini, and spinach. On the other hand, tadpoles living in the wild do not need to be fed by humans (CTNF).

Wild tadpoles generally feed on the surrounding wildlife as they develop into frogs, which differs from tadpoles living in captivity. Despite being faced with many safety risks, wild tadpoles generally manage to find enough suitable food sources to grow into healthy and hopping froglets.

More About What Tadpoles Eat

Be sure to check out the complete guides on our blog to learn more about what tadpoles can and cannot eat:

Sources

Pierce, C. C., Shannon, R. P., & Bolek, M. G. (2018). Distribution and reproductive plasticity of Gyrinicola batrachiensis (Oxyuroidea: Pharyngodonidae) in tadpoles of five anuran species. Parasitology Research 117:461-470.