From Gills to Lungs

My 7 year old is obsessed with amphibians. I remember their allure from my childhood when I went through my salamander phase. Every naturalist has their favorites, their specific interests.

My daughter is particularly focused on toads and frogs. In that order.

To encourage her, I decided she was ready for a tadpole hatching project. We’d get our own tadpoles, raise them, and then release them. This way she could witness their life-cycle first hand, instead of through charts, while also appreciating the importance of respecting a wild animal’s need to be free.


She wanted toad tadpoles but it’s difficult to tell the difference between them unless acquiring through a seller which did not appeal to our needs. Toad tadpoles are supposedly all black, whereas frog tadpoles have flecks of green or grey in them (at least in our area). But when first hatched they all look black.

So we had a little adventure deciding to get what we could find, and explored a nearby pond. It was a cool April day. A nice time to get out in nature. “It’s a bit early in the season,” I warned my daughter.

Leave it to fate to contradict me to my child. Within minutes of saying this, she spotted a tiny tadpole among the banks.

Lexi finding tadpole

I had no idea her eyes were so sharp. The tadpole was so tiny I couldn’t imagine how she saw it so easily. She said, “I just looked and there it was.”

“It must be fate.” I laughed.

I bent down and gently slid our jar into the water and sucked the water in, pulling the tadpole with it. Then I searched the area and found a second tadpole. We added it to the jar and spent a little more time searching before we accepted the early spring babies as a gift.

I took some mud and aquatic plants with us to help create a natural terrarium atmosphere for our new house guests.

tadpole 1

Once home we got the larger terrarium/enclosure prepared and set the jar in the water on its side so the tadpoles could swim out as they pleased.

Tadpole 2

I did not filter the water, as these tadpoles would need to be used to pond water if they would be able to survive in the wild once re-released. Instead I let the water evaporate naturally and added clean cups as needed. It made it a little difficult to spot them, but 1 was very friendly, always coming up to show off and watch us watching it.

My daughter named this one, Lily-Pad, since it/she-to my daughter, liked to skim the surface.

The hider was named, Algae.

They were both so small at first, it took patience to find them in their temporary home. We had acquired some tadpole/frog pellets to feed them, and they grew fast.

Tadpole 3

We had accidentally taken some snails with us and they shared the terrarium, happily cleaning the walls and eating from the plants. They bred like crazy, but that’s what snails do. My 10 year old became more interested in the snails so they were considered her little side project, watching and observing their habits.

She also discovered what may have been a dragonfly nymph and wanted to keep it, but their long life cycle proved a bad idea. (They can spend as much as 7 years as a water nymph).

We did some research and watched tadpole growing videos on youtube. Some people had success offering their tadpoles lettuce, so we offered a few greens to help boost their nutritional offerings.

Tadpole 5

It seemed to help.

For about a week or so I couldn’t tell the difference between the little swimmers’ budding legs and their poop.  Which made for some great immature comedy.

tadpole 6

The kids were thrilled. I may have been more excited than they were, rushing to check on the tadpoles every morning and wishing them a peaceful night before bed.

We put them outside during the day, but brought them in at night for the first few weeks.

tadpole 7

Lily may have been the show off, but Algae was a better eater. She was smaller at first, but slowly began to outpace Lily in growth.

tadpole 8

tadpole 9

We may have gushed over them a bit.

tadpole 10

They were very interesting to watch. I could have looked at them all day.

Tadpole 11

Most sources state that it takes on average 7 weeks for a tadpole to develop into a frog, so when we hit week 5, I was concerned about their form

But then Algae sprouted legs!

Tadpole 12

Lily still had little buds forming and loved to show off but Algae was really growing.

Tadpole 13

Tadpole 14

I did wipe down the inside walls of the tank. They got too murky even though we had more snails than we could handle. I was afraid they were taking over, so we transferred a few to another tank to be released when the frogs went back to their birthplace.

It was at this point that we decided to start leaving them out overnight, with a rock on top just in case any resident raccoons got fishy.



Everything changed.

I checked on them in the middle of the day. It was a scorcher, about 98 degrees. Sadly Lily was floating dead, still in tadpole form after 7 weeks, with her tiny back legs. I was devastated.

I scooped her out, but couldn’t find algae. I was freaking out wondering if I had missed a big snail that somehow ate her.

I swirled a stick in the water and something hopped on the little land bank we had created.

Tadpole 15

Algae was a frog!

She had made it.

I couldn’t wait to tell the kids.

tadpole 16

Losing Lily was hard. My daughter took it well. We pondered the cause. Was it the heat, the bacteria in the water, a rogue snail, a delayed biological system?

There were plenty of theories to go round.

But instead we focused on our success. Our happy healthy frog who had developed before our eyes. She went from gilled creature to lung filling amphibian so quickly. It was amazing to see.

I never got to do my own tadpole project as a kid. In school there were chickens to hatch and a worm farm (yes, worms, not ants) but this was new for me too.

tadpoles 18

tadpoles 17

We brought her back inside for examining, but she obviously needed more space and was ready to go back to the wild by the next day.

wyatt frog

tadpoles 19

So we took her and the snails back to their pond.

tadpoles 20

We said goodbye to the snails first.

tadpoles 21

Everyone held Algae and said their farewells, even me.

tadpoles 22

Then my 7 year old amphibian lover found the joy in letting go.

tadpoles 23

It was bittersweet, but very uplifting.

tadpoles 24

Algae seemed happy. Or at least ready.

tadpoles 25

And we left her to the wild:

From gills to lungs

a tadpole no more

You belong to the wild

Your home in the ponds

6 thoughts on “From Gills to Lungs

  1. bethcusack says:

    This post was amazing. It captures a glimpse of the joy children experience observing life cycles in nature. It put a smile on my face all day long. Beautifully expressed!

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