How to Care for the Giant Waxy Monkey Tree Frog
P. bicolor on vine
Phyllomedusa bicolor Frog Appearance
Giant waxy monkey frogs are large amphibians, with beautiful lime green dorsal (back) coloration. The ventral side is off-white with a number of bright white spots outlined with black.
Add the enormous silver eyes, with vertical pupil slits, and it all adds up to a very peculiar, otherworldly appearance. My frog is called Zoidberg, I really feel he needed a name that would reflect his strange look.
A particularly bizarre feature of a giant waxy monkey frog are its long-fingered, almost human- like, hands, which have a lime green spot at the end of each finger. It appears that the frogs have a very trendy, but unvaried taste in nail polish.
Some Facts About Giant Waxy Monkey Frogs
- Giant waxy monkey tree frogs belong to the genus Phyllomedusa, more commonly known as leaf frogs (because when sleeping they resemble a leaf and camouflage themselves in the foliage).
- P. bicolor are the largest in the family (hence the "giant" in the common name). They are native to the Amazon rain forest of Brazil, Colombia, Peru and the Guianas.
- They live high in the trees, were they are exposed to wind and the conditions are quite dry. To prevent dehydration they produce a waxy secretion which they carefully spread all over their bodies (hence the "waxy" in the common name).
- Unlike the majority of frogs they can grasp objects with their hands and feet, and instead of jumping, they climb from branch to branch like monkeys. They are nocturnal, and spend the day sleeping perched on thin branches, like parrots.
P. Bicolor's Call
P. bicolor: a medicine and drugs factory?
The waxy secretions that the frog rubs over its body (the amphibian equivalent of using sunscreen lotion) contain hundreds of bio-active compounds that fight infection, and analgesics that provide pain relief.
Many frogs produce chemicals to protect themselves against bacteria and fungi. The humid, hot environments in which most species are found make them prone to infections. Phyllomedusa bicolor seems to be a pharmaceutical company. It is being actively studied by scientists attempting to develop new compounds. There are more than 20 articles published in peer-reviewed journals listed in pubmed about its secretions.
There are rumours about developing anti-cancer and anti-AIDS drugs from the frog, and some compounds have been patented, but no successful products had been developed yet.
Sadly this has had the unfortunate effect that the species is now in danger from biopiracy, large numbers are being captured and killed and marketed as cures for various diseases.
Shamanic hunting rituals
Long before the frog became of interest to scientists, the hallucinogenic properties of its secretions were used by tribes in its native forests in shamanic rituals.
Frogs are captured, treated rather badly to induce them to secrete, the mucus is then scraped off their skins and dried. The white substance, known as Sapo, is then mixed with the saliva of the best hunter in the tribe (there is a lack of information from the tribe's HR department about the criteria used in the selection for this position).
Then comes the second-most painful part of the ritual, the hunters rub the Sapo into self-induced burns, which they create with sticks heated up in fires. The after-effects of the poison, are even worse then the method of application, they include acute diarrhea, vomiting, tachycardia, and occasionally even death.
However, once that is over, the tribesmen experience hallucinations and a state of hypersensitivity, they can see and hear much better than normally, and incredible energy and stamina. They can hunt for days without food or rest.
Keeping the giant waxy monkey frog as a pet
The giant waxy monkey is a fascinating amphibian species to keep as a pet. However a it is not a beginner species.
It is considered very challenging to keep well. When I first asked my local pet shop (which boards species) to look after it while I was on holiday, they refused and, after much begging, only agreed on condition that I sign a release stating that I would not hold them responsible if the frog died while in their care (it didn't and I have left it with them on numerous occasion after that).
One of the problems is the rarity of captive bred specimen, most Phyllomedusa bicolor on sale are wild caught, and are probably in bad condition even before you buy them. There have been several successful attempts at breeding especially in the US so this might improve soon.
I suspect that much of the failure to keep this frog successfully stems from a lack of knowledge about its terrarium requirements. When setting up its enclosure it is better to think of it as a chameleon, rather than a frog.
The other things to consider is that this is a nocturnal species, during the day it will perch on a branch and remain in the same position pretending to be a leaf until the lights are switched off. So although it is a beautiful and fascinating frog, you will actually not see it "do" much during the day.
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Housing the giant waxy monkey frog
In thinking of how to house your Phyllomedusa bicolor you should be guided by its common name, giant waxy monkey frog. I think the main failure of captive care of this frog is not realising the importance of ventilation for its well-being and health.
Because frogs need humid conditions and dessicate easily, the natural choice of terrarium is a glass enclosure. However, this is a waxy frog, it can handle drier conditions than most other amphibia. The frog seems to do best when it is housed like a chameleon, in a screen terrarium rather than a glass one.
Because it is arboreal it requires a tall terrarium. I have kept Zoidberg in an exoterra flexarium with great success for over 6 years. Although he is doing well in it, there are some disadvantages, it is a black nylon cage, and I think is more suited to temporary housing outside rather than as a permanent enclosure. It is very light and compact, can be folded into a small package but that is more important if you're planning to take it with you, say on a field trip rather than inside.
It is not as durable as normal enclosures, the zip can get stuck, and it can develop small holes through which crickets escape (and hide under your fridge producing their horrific squeaks! the curse of all herpetoculturists). Recently aluminium reptibreeze screen enclosures have become available in the UK, apart from being more "solid", they also promise a better view of their inhabitants. I haven't tried one yet but it is definitely an object of desire.
The "monkey" part of P. bicolor's common name dictates the décor choices for the terrarium, it needs to be able climb and have many perching choices. For a rather large frog, it seems to prefer, surprisingly thing branches for sleeping on, a choice of branches of various thickness should be offered. If you are collecting branches from the wild, ensure that you only get them from places that you know are pesticide and chemical free. Alternatively "branches" can be created from thin bamboo sticks and artificial jungle vine, which works very well when attached to thicker supports in reproducing a tangle of branches.
The terrarium should contain natural plants. Although the frogs don't need high humidity, it should still be maintained at 40%-60%, foliage and daily misting help. Useful plants are monstrera swiss cheese plants, ficus trees or umbrella plants.
The Frog should be provided with a shallow dish of non-chlorinated water which is changed daily. It "drinks" by sitting in the water at night and absorbing it through its skin.
Like other frogs, P. bicolor is insectivorous, which in captivity basically means crickets. Because of its size it requires adult-sized crickets fed 2-3X a week. The "food" should be gut-loaded by feeding it carrots and apples, the frog derives a lot of its nutrition from the contents of the guts of its prey. Crickets should be dusted with a calcium and vitamin powder once a week. To vary the diet I occasionally wait till wax worms metamorphose into moths, which it seems to enjoy. My frog completely ignores the larvae, or any other worms.
Breeding Giant Waxy Monkey Frogs
I have not bred these frogs myself, however, an increasing number of their keepers are successful producing captive bred froglets. This is a very welcome development since captive bred animals should do much better in captivity, and it allows the hobby to flourish without damaging the environment in their native Amazon forest.
The basic requirements for breeding appear to be similar to most amphibians, a cooler, conditioning period before the attempt, then using higher temperatures and humidity and a rain chamber to simulate the rain season in the forest.
For a more detailed explanation, see the comments from Tom below, a UK keeper who is breeding these frogs.
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