Owning One of the World’s Deadliest – March 2014

By Noah Collins

Dart frogs have made their way into the herpetology field. Though some species are quite deadly in the wild, a simple change in diet stops the production of poison for captive specimens. In captivity, dart frogs are fed a diet that consists mainly of flightless fruit flies or crickets. Drosophila hydei and Drosphila melanogaster, the most common fruit fly species used used, as well as crickets are not rich in the alkaloids needed to produce the frog’s poison. In the wild, dart frogs feed on invertebrates from Central and South America where insects rich in theses alkaloids thrive. The frogs are able to synthesis these alkaloids from their prey in order to produce their toxins. As dart frogs secrete poison that predators must ingest, rather than actively injecting toxins into prey (the way venomous snakes do), they are considered poisonous rather than venomous. In fact, some dart frog species are considered the most poisonous animals on planet Earth. In order for a frog to harm another organism the toxin must enter the body through a cut or be ingested. Fortunately, captive dart frogs pose no risk of hurting humans.

Bumblebee Dart Frog – Dendrobates leucomelas

One of the most interesting species of poison dart frogs is the Golden dart frog (Phyllobates terribilis). This species of dart frog, when encountered in its natural habitat, is the most lethal. In the wild this species can create a poison called Batrachotoxin. Batrachotoxin is classified as a neurotoxin, and usually causes an organism to suffer from cardiac arrest. There is currently no cure for an individual who has had Batrachotoxin poisoning. This poison is so powerful that it is said to be much stronger than Morphine. The Phyllobates genus of poison dart frogs contain the only species of dart frogs that can create this poison. Due to the high toxicity, Amazonian natives use the frogs in the genus Phyllobates to hunt. The natives gently wipe their darts or arrows on the frogs back so that their prey will die when the darts or arrows stab into their bodies. This way the natives do not have to hit their targets with a lethal shot, but rather just pierce the skin so that the prey will succumb to the poison. The terms “Dart Frogs” and “Arrow Frogs” commonly referred to by hobbyists, derive from the way natives use them to hunt.  The term is generally applied to any of the small, brightly colored South American frogs, but only 3 of the most toxic species from the Phyllobates genus are actually used by Amazonians to poison the tips of their darts.

Some of the most common types of dart frogs in captivity are of the Dendrobates family. The Bumblebee dart frogs (Dendrobates Leucomelas) are one of the most abundant dart frog in captivity.  Bumblebee dart frogs produce a different kind of poison than the golden dart frogs do in the wild. Bumblebee dart frogs, as well as other Dendrobates species of dart frogs, produce Pumiliotoxin. Although this toxin is not as potent as Batrachotoxin, it still can be very dangerous. Even being hundreds of times less potent than Batrachotoxin, Pumiliotoxin causes paralysis, difficulty moving, and in severe cases death. This toxin causes irregular muscle contractions, putting the heart at risk.

Another species of dart frogs that is capable of producing Pumiliotoxin is the Dendrobates tinctorious, or the dyeing dart frog. One color variety is commonly mistaken for being a unique species – the blue azureus locale.  This frog is very unique in its display of vibrant blue colors. Each frog has a unique pattern of black spots on its back making it possible to identify between other frogs of the same type. This is similar the Bumblebee dart frogs because each Bumblebee dart frog has a unique banding that can be used to tell the frogs apart. These are frogs all have unique patters that distinguish them individually in a similar way that finger prints are used to distinguish human apart.  They also have different morphs of dart frogs in captivity. These morphs are caused through selective breeding. Breeders have created banded Bumblebee dart frogs where solid bands of black and yellow wrap the frog.

There are hundreds of types of poison dart frogs available to be kept as pets. Most species can live five to seven years in captivity. Because they have a decent life span in captivity, there is large number of offspring that can come from just a single pair. This is allowing them to become easily available and due to the sheer number available, new morphs are being created regularly in more species than just the Bumblebee dart frogs.

Since dart frogs cannot make poisons in captivity, they can make a great display pet for hobbyists because they are diurnal (awake during the day). Most dart frogs have vibrant colors used in the wild to show that they are dangerous and warn predators to stay away. Because of this, a dart frog’s security does not come from hiding like most animal species, but rather from being out in the open displaying warning colors. The dart frogs in captivity behave in the same ways they behave in the wild. Most dart frogs are not going to hide or sleep all day. This makes them a great “show” animal. Dendrobates auratus dart frogs are green and black, and their patterns often resemble a camo design. Again, each design is unique to each frog. They are one of the few dart frogs that are green in color. Although these frogs blend in to the green environment around them more so than species like the  Dendrobates tinctorious, they still stand out. Species like the Dendrobates auratus are a little shyer in captivity. Though they are out during the day, they are quicker to hide than other dart frogs if spooked. This type of shy behavior can be related to how potent the frog’s poison would be in the wild. Usually the most poisonous are brightly colored and the less poisonous are more likely to be subtly colored.  Although color can be used to describe how toxic the frogs can be, size does not relate to the toxicity of the animal.

There are species of dart frogs that stay very small like the blue jean (Dendrobates pumilio) dart frog. These frogs get no bigger than the average person’s thumbnail. This gives this group of frogs the widely used name of Thumbnail frogs. Most Thumbnail frogs are kept by experienced keepers because they can be less hardy than other species of dart frogs. Tinctorious species of dart frogs can get much bigger than thumbnail species. Some of these frogs get over two inches in length. Most Tinctorious species are territorial and will often bully other frogs of smaller size. Unlike the golden poison dart frogs who live in small groups, called an army, the Tinctorious species are more of loners in the wild. In captivity however, they can often be housed in pairs or trios. As long as the frogs are of similar size and have adequate room to roam around, they can do just fine together.  It is best to monitor your frogs closely when first introducing them, though, to ensure that there is no bullying between individuals.

Dart frogs are an animal that many scientists have taken an interest into studying. They are also making their way into the pet world and proving to be some of the most unique pets.  I highly suggest keeping one or more for yourself – there’s tons of species out there to try!