Even though the question of how do tadpoles breathe is a very specific one, it’s a question that’s asked often by people who first start learning about herping, especially amphibians. In this (short) article, you’ll learn how tadpoles breathe!

If you’re interested in tadpoles and frogs, check out our article titled are frogs reptiles or amphibians? In that article, we cover all the reasons why tadpoles and frogs are classed as amphibians and not as reptiles!

Now, on with the article!

Do tadpoles breathe air?

In short, no. Even though they obviously “breathe” in some sense, they don’t breath air using lungs like us humans do. Tadpoles and most amphibian species, in general, are actually marvels of nature in that sense.

The metamorphosis tadpoles go through to end up as frogs is just magnificent, and it’s something that we’re planning on doing an article on in the near future. Anyway…

Frogs do breathe air like us mammals do, but when they are young, they don’t. Crazy, huh?! But, how do tadpoles breathe underwater then? More on that now.

How do tadpoles breathe underwater?

Tadpoles actually breathe underwater in the same way that fish do. Through their gills. In very simple terms, gills are a membrane that transfers co2 out of the body and sucks up the oxygen (I know I know, not the best explanation, but it will suffice for this article. Feel free to read this Wikipedia article about how gills work)

By using gills, tadpoles don’t have to surface for air all the time. As you can probably imagine, the chances of them being eaten alive on the surface are large. A lot of tadpoles get eaten by fish too, and that’s why fishless ponds are so important to the existence of amphibians. However, imagine if these poor little things also had to surface for air…

Tadpole metamorphosis

As tadpoles start to transform into mature frogs, they obviously start developing lungs. This happens around the time when their legs start to develop and is an important time for little tadpoles. It’s at this time that you’ll start seeing tadpoles come up for a gulp of air, and they’ll start spending more time near the surface of the water.

There are actually also tadpoles that have both gills and lungs, and you may see them rising up to the surface for gulps of air every once in a while.

How do people know that tadpoles breathe using gills?

Well, apart from the fact that there are certain tadpoles that don’t come up for air at all, it’s pretty obvious. However, there are ways that people have tested how a tadpole breathes under water.

One of the easiest tests that were used for this is the simple food coloring test. If you drop some food coloring near a tadpole you’re observing, you can actually see the coloring passing through its gills.

However, even though this experiment is easy to replicate, we’re not sure if this harms the tadpole in any way. Amphibians already have a hard time all around the world and they don’t need us making it harder!


The answer to “how do tadpoles breathe?” is simple: gills. However, after reading this article, hopefully you’ve managed to gain some insights into the life of a tadpole, as well as learned some new interesting facts about tadpole breathing.

If there’s anything you feel we’ve missed in this article about “how do tadpoles breathe?” then please shoot us a message or leave a comment. We’re always looking to improve our resources and we’d really appreciate the feedback!

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