Poison Dart Frog Facts

Scientific Name: Dendrobatidae Family

Strawberry Poison Frog (Oophaga pumilio)
Strawberry Poison Frog (Oophaga pumilio).

Jp Lawrence / Nature Picture Library / Getty Images

Poison dart frogs are small tropical frogs in the family Dendrobatidae. These brightly colored frogs secrete mucous that packs a powerful poisonous punch, while other members of the family camouflage themselves against their surroundings and are nontoxic.

Fast Facts: Poison Dart Frog

  • Scientific Name: Family Dendrobatidae (e.g., Phyllobates terribilis)
  • Common Names: Poison dart frog, poison arrow frog, poison frog, dendrobatid
  • Basic Animal Group: Amphibian
  • Size: 0.5-2.5 inches
  • Weight: 1 ounce
  • Lifespan: 1-3 years
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Habitat: Tropical forests of Central and South America
  • Population: Stable or decreasing, depending on species
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern to Critically Endangered

Species

There are over 170 species and 13 genera of poison dart frogs. Although collectively known as "poison dart frogs," only four species in the genus Phyllobates were documented as used to poison blowdart tips. Some species are nonpoisonous.

Description

Most poison dart frogs are brightly colored to warn potential predators of their toxicity. However, nontoxic poison dart frogs are cryptically colored so that they can blend in with their surroundings. Adult frogs are small, ranging from half an inch to just under two and a half inches in length. On average, adults weigh one ounce.

Habitat and Distribution

Poison dart frogs live in the tropical and subtropical rainforests and wetlands of Central and South America. They are found in Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Suriname, French Guiana, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Guyana, and Brazil. The frogs have been introduced into Hawaii.

Diet and Behavior

Tadpoles are omnivorous. They feed on debris, dead insects, insect larvae, and algae. Some species eat other tadpoles. Adults use their sticky tongues to capture, ants, termites, and other small invertebrates.

Poison Dart Frog Toxicity

The frog's poison comes from its diet. Specifically, alkaloids from arthropods accumulate and are secreted through the frog's skin. The toxins vary in potency. The most toxic poison dart frog is the golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis). Each frog contains about one milligram of the poison batrachotoxin, which is sufficient to kill between 10 and 20 people or 10,000 mice. Batrachotoxin prevents nerve impulses from transmitting the signal to relax muscles, causing heart failure. There are no antidotes for poison dart frog exposure. Theoretically, death would occur within three minutes, however, there are no published reports of human deaths from poison dart frog poisoning.

The frog has special sodium channels, so it is immune to its own poison. Some predators have developed immunity to the toxin, including the snake Erythrolamprus epinephalus.

The golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis) is the most poisonous poison dart frog.
The golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis) is the most poisonous poison dart frog. Paul Starosta, Getty Images

Reproduction and Offspring

If the climate is sufficiently wet and warm, poison dart frogs breed year-round. In other areas, breeding is triggered by rainfall. After courtship, the female lays between one and 40 eggs, which are fertilized by the male. Usually both the male and the female guard the eggs until they hatch. Hatching depends on species and temperature, but usually takes between 10 and 18 days. Then, the hatchlings climb onto their parents' backs, where they are carried to a "nursery." The nursery is a small pool of water between the leaves of bromeliads or other epiphytes. The mother supplements the nutrients of the water by laying unfertilized eggs into it. The tadpoles complete the metamorphosis into adult frogs after several months.

In the wild, poison dart frogs live from 1 to 3 years. They may live 10 years in captivity, although the tri-colored poison frog may live 25 years.

After the eggs hatch, poison dart frogs carry the tadpoles to a nursery formed by water in bromeliad leaves.
After the eggs hatch, poison dart frogs carry the tadpoles to a nursery formed by water in bromeliad leaves. kikkerdirk, Getty Images

Conservation Status

The poison dart frog conservation status varies widely, depending on the species. Some species, such as the dyeing poison frog (Dendobates tinctorius) are classified by the IUCN as "least concern" and enjoy a stable population. Others, such as Summer's poison frog (Ranitomeya summersi), are endangered and decreasing in numbers. Still other species have gone extinct or have yet to be discovered.

Threats

The frogs face three major threats: habitat loss, collection for the pet trade, and death from the fungal disease chytridiomycosis. Zoos that keep poison dart frogs often treat them with an antifungal agent to control the disease.

Poison Dart Frogs and Humans

Poison dart frogs are popular pets. They require high humidity and controlled temperatures. Even when their diet is changed, wild-caught poisonous frogs retain their toxicity for some time (potentially years) and should be handled with care. Captive-bred frogs become poisonous if fed an alkaloid-containing diet.

The toxic alkaloids from some species may have medicinal value. For example, the compound epibatidine from Epipedobates tricolor skin is a painkiller that is 200 times more powerful than morphine. Other alkaloids show promise as appetite suppressants, heart stimulants, and muscle relaxants.

Sources

  • Daszak, P.; Berger, L.; Cunningham, A.A.; Hyatt, A.D.; Green, D.E.; Speare, R. "Emerging infectious diseases and amphibian population declines". Emerging Infectious Diseases. 5 (6): 735–48, 1999. doi:10.3201/eid0506.990601
  • La Marca, Enrique and Claudia Azevedo-Ramos. Dendrobates leucomelas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2004: e.T55191A11255828. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2004.RLTS.T55191A11255828.en
  • Speed, I; M. A. Brockhurst; G. D. Ruxton. "The dual benefits of aposematism: Predator avoidance and enhanced resource collection". Evolution. 64 (6): 1622–1633, 2010. doi:10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00931.x
  • Stefan, Lötters; Jungfer, Karl-Heinz; Henkel, Friedrich Wilhelm; Schmidt, Wolfgang. Poison Frogs: Biology, Species, & Captive Husbandry. Serpent's Tale. pp. 110–136, 2007. ISBN 978-3-930612-62-8.