When thinking of which animals to train in a zoo, your mind may go straight to mammals like our raccoon or big cats. You may even consider our giraffes, but what about an animal that was much smaller? Would you ever consider training a frog? You might not think a frog would be a good candidate for training, but they can be! Our resident Amazon milk frogs, Latte and Maracana, are going to help explain why.
What Are Amazon Milk Frogs?
Amazon milk frogs are native to Northern South America and prefer to live high up in the trees. They get their name “milk frog” from the milky white toxin they secrete when stressed or threatened. Their favorite snacks are insects and other invertebrates, as well as smaller amphibians. Honestly, if they can fit it into their mouth, a milk frog is probably going to try to eat it! Amazon milk frogs are ambush predators that sit and wait for their food to come close. Once close enough the milk frog will leap forward and grab their food. These frogs use their hands to shove food into their mouths, which can make training them rather amusing.
Training A Frog
Training a frog isn’t the easiest task in the world. It requires a LOT of patience. They aren’t as reactive as some other species and can take a while to do the behavior you are asking. It can, however, be done. But how do you train a frog you might ask? With a laser pointer, of course!
Latte and Maracana recently joined our animal training program- a program designed to positively impact welfare and foster relationships between caretakers and animals. When thinking of new animals and behaviors to train, I knew I wanted to do something with our frogs. And since we already knew that they responded to a laser pointer when used for enrichment, we figured targeting would be the easiest thing to try and train. The goal was to get them to turn towards the laser pointer, follow it, and…click! As soon as they go towards the red dot they are reinforced with a click of the clicker followed by some delicious crickets. I started off simple with the milk frogs. Any movement towards the dot, whether it be full body movement or simply a head turn, was rewarded. They caught on quickly to this and will now actively orient themselves towards the laser pointer! The next step is to get them to take steps towards it and follow it. We are currently working on that part.
Now, just because a laser pointer worked in getting their attention doesn’t mean training came without some trial and error. As I previously mentioned, patience is key. While they may respond to the laser pointer, it can take some time before the milk frogs actually make any movement towards it. When they do finally go for the dot, they may not want to take any reinforcement. They like prey that is moving, so I have to make sure that I’m mimicking the way prey may move when trying to feed our frogs. Depending on where they are at in their habitat, they may not want to train at all. You may also have some physical limitations during training. Your arms may cramp up; you may get frustrated; and it might feel like it’ll never happen as you wait for your frog to finally go after that tiny red dot! Keep trying anyway!
So Why Train A Frog?
Training is a great way to keep an animal mentally and physically stimulated and allows for the opportunity for cooperative care. Cooperative care gives the animal choice and control during husbandry procedures to create an overall more positive experience. Behaviors such as stationing, crating, or targeting can all help make caring for the animal easier and help increase their welfare.
Target training our frogs using the laser pointer will aid us in moving them around in their habitat without having to physically handle them and possibly stress them out. The hope is to one day station train. Stationing is when they go to a specific area in their habitat and hold there. Targeting can be used to get them to the station to begin with until they start associating the station with reward. Once they are on the station it can then be lifted out of their habitat and the frogs can be packed up in their travelling habitat for programming. Of course, our training is all voluntary, so if the frogs do not wish to target or station then they don’t have to. We are all about choice and control here at the zoo!
While target training is nothing new in the Education Department, targeting with frogs certainly is, and I am proud to say that Latte and Maracana have been doing really well with it. Remember, with patience, yummy snacks, and a tiny red dot, even a frog can be trained!
Written by Emily Granville
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA