A common frog next to frogspawn in a pond

A common frog in a pond containing frogspawn. Common frogs are a native species to the UK. © Lesley Andrew/ Shutterstock.com

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How to find frogspawn, tadpoles and froglets

The astonishing life cycle of frogs, from jelly-like bunches of eggs to ribbitting adulthood, is one of the wonderful stories of nature. It's a tale of tails, and how to lose them.

The seasonal transformation of these amphibians is one of the classic signs that spring has arrived, when at the edges of ponds and slow-moving streams, frogspawn appears and hatches into tadpoles. The tadpoles go on to develop legs and arms that young frogs (called froglets) use to leave their pools behind.

Read on to discover where and when you can find frogspawn, tadpoles and froglets each spring, and what to look for.

When do frogs spawn in the UK?

There are two species of frog native to the British Isles: the common frog (Rana temporaria) and the much rarer pool frog (Pelophylax lessonae).

A pool frog

Pool frogs are also native to the UK, but they are very rare here, so if you spot frogspawn, it almost certainly belongs to a common frog © Bart Rousseau (CC BY ND 2.0) via Flickr

The frogspawn of the common frog can be found just below the surface of ponds and other shallow, still water across the UK from around February onwards. But the timing can vary depending on where you are in the country and the weather conditions that year. By March, you can expect to find lots of frogspawn in ponds across the country. By laying large numbers of eggs, frogs increase the chances that some will survive to adulthood.

Ponds that are shady and have lots of reeds and other vegetation around them are particularly popular with breeding frogs. But frogs will even lay their spawn in temporary puddles.

When you do find frogspawn, as with all wildlife, it's better to enjoy it from a distance and not disturb it. You shouldn't move frogspawn from one pond to another, because conditions in the new pond may not be suitable and it can also spread diseases deadly to amphibians.

Close up of frogspawn

Frogspawn of the common frog (Rana temporaria). The black dots are the eggs surrounded by a jelly-like casing. © Ian Grainger/ Shutterstock.com

What is the difference between frog and toad spawn?

Frogspawn eggs bunch together in large clumps. This is how to tell the difference between frogspawn and toadspawn, which instead forms thin ribbons on underwater plants.

How long does it take frogspawn to hatch?

It takes around three weeks for young tadpoles to emerge. These tailed juveniles can be found swimming in ponds from around March.

Tadpoles are fully aquatic and have gills that they use to breathe underwater as they forage and feed. In younger tadpoles the gills are external and visible with a microscope or magnifying glass.

What do tadpoles eat?

Young tadpoles begin by eating things like algae. As they grow, they go on to munch leaves, moss and sometimes even small insects. 

Tadpoles swimming in shallow water

Common frog tadpoles with their characteristic speckled brown colouring © Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble (CC BY ND 2.0) via Flickr

Common frog tadpoles develop distinctive colouring which can help you identify them. They change from darker colours to a mottled golden brown as they age, distinguishing them from the black common toad tadpoles found in similar habitats.

From tadpole to frog

As the months pass into April and May, you should be able to spot dramatic changes at the edges of your local pond as tadpoles slowly change into frogs. This process is called metamorphosis.

After about 16 weeks from when tadpoles hatch, the legs begin to form, followed by the arms. The tails gradually are absorbed into the body. Alongside this process, lungs form to allow the young frog to breathe above water.

Close up of a tadpole with legs

A common frog tadpole developing its back legs © Eric Isselee/ Shutterstock.com

A pond's particular environment can have a big impact on the speed at which tadpoles transform. For example, if there is a lot of food or the temperature is cold, tadpoles can delay the process of metamorphosis by several months. They can also increase the rate of change if this benefits them, for instance if they are sharing the pond with hungry predators such as fish.

Feasting froglets

Once their new bodies are developed, froglets leave the pond and begin a new semi-aquatic phase of their lives, splitting their time between land and water like all amphibians.

A tiny young frog on a rock

A young common frog sitting by the side of a pool. Baby frogs are commonly called froglets, and scientists often call them metamorphs. © thatmacroguy/ Shutterstock.com

Their diet also changes, with the young frogs now feeding on a range of invertebrates including flies, slugs and snails. They still have a lot of growing to do. Common frogs reach up to 13 centimetres in length as adults (males are smaller than females) and live for around five to 10 years.

At around two to three years old, common frogs are ready to breed, restarting the life cycle.

Three common frogs in a pond

Although common frogs are semi-aquatic, the earlier stages of their life cycle are fully aquatic, so they mate and lay their eggs in water © Jukka (CC BY ND 2.0) via Flickr

What eats frogspawn?

Frogs are vulnerable to a number of predators and threats at each stage of their development.

Many animals eat frogspawn and tadpoles in the UK, including fish, beetles, newts, dragonfly larvae, rats and even foxes and hedgehogs.

Froglets and adult frogs are eaten by snakes, owls and other birds of prey, as well as mammals such as otters, badgers and weasels.

Other threats to frogs

Unsuitable temperatures can also be a big risk to the development of frogspawn, which needs light and warmth. Spring frosts can be particularly bad news, as frogspawn will die if the temperature drops too low.

But some of the largest threats to frogs in the UK come from human activities. Find out about these threats and how you can help.

What else should I be looking for?

Although frogspawn might be the most obvious inhabitant of your local pond in spring, there's plenty more to life beneath the surface.

There are three kinds of newt species in the UK and, like frogs and toads, these creatures also breed in springtime.

A smooth newt at the bottom of a pond

A male smooth newt, Lissotriton vulgaris, with its distinctive crest © Jack Perks/ Shutterstock.com

Unlike frogs and toads, newts lay individual eggs and hide them away in vegetation, making them much more difficult to spot. Since newts eat tadpoles, you're likely to find fewer froglets in a pond where newts are in town. But newts also eat other pondlife such as midge larvae.

If you like a challenge and if it's safe to do so, why not follow the chorus of croaking and see if you can spot frogs, toads or newts in their various life stages in spring?

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