16 Poison Dart Frog Facts: Tiny Yet Powerful Amphibians

Blue poison dart frog
Blue poison dart frog (Dendrobates azureus). Photo: Michael Gäbler.

With their brightly colored bodies that stand out among a jungle full of beauty, poison dart frogs are some of the world’s most intriguing animals. Their eye-catching colors are not only beautiful – they serve as warnings to predators and mark the powerful poisons that are secreted through their skin. But there is much more to these colorful amphibians than their flashy appearance and unparalleled toxicity. Here are some commonly asked questions and intriguing fact about poison dart frogs.

1. Where do poison dart frogs live?

Poison dart frogs are native to the tropical and subtropical forests of South and Central America, spanning from Nicaragua in the north to Amazon Rainforest in Brazil in the south. They can be found in wet lowland forests as well in higher altitude shrublands and near rivers, freshwater marshes, swamps, and lakes. They can also be found in the U.S. in the state of Hawaii, however, they are an introduced species there. While they mainly live on the ground, poison dart frogs can also be found in trees as high as 33 ft. (10 m) above the ground.

2. How big are poison dart frogs?

Though poison dart frogs vary in size, they are all quite small, growing to only about one inch (2.5 cm) long.

Here’s a video from Brave Wilderness that shows you just how tiny these mighty amphibians are:

3. What do poison dart frogs eat?

Poison dart frogs eat unimaginable things – at least for most of us humans. Their diet consists of poisonous ants, centipedes, termites, and other insects, which they find on the forest floor. They use their sticky, retractable tongues to catch their prey.

4. Why are they called poison dart frogs?

Yellow-banded poison dart frog
Yellow-banded poison dart frog (Dendrobates leucomelas). Photo: Dmitrij Rodionov.

Poison dart frogs get their name because they do indeed secret poison from their skin. The “dart” part of their name comes from how South American Indigenous Peoples use their poison. In a method that is painful for the frog, the people gather the secretions as the frog is under stress. They then apply the secreted poison to their darts, which they use for hunting.

Poison dart frogs were formerly called “poison arrow frogs” because it was assumed that local tribes poisoned their arrow tips with the frogs’ secretions. But in fact, the poison is used in blowgun hunting darts.

5. Can a poison dart frog kill you?

While about one-third of poison dart frog species are extremely toxic to human beings, most are not deadly. However, they can make you very sick, including causing nausea, swelling, and even muscle paralysis if you touch or eat one. Some species are not toxic at all, however, one species is especially deadly (which I’ll explain more about below.)

Poison vs. Venom

It’s important to keep in mind that while poison dart frogs are poisonous, they are not venomous. The difference between these two terms is that poisonous creatures are toxic if they are ingested, while venomous creatures, such as snakes and wasps, inject toxins through a bite or a sting. Essentially, venomous animals and insects harm you when they attack, while those who are poisonous harm you if you ingest them or their secretions.

Here’s a video from the Smithsonian Channel that talks about these frogs’ poison:

Frog Poison Symptoms

If a human is poisoned by one of these frogs, the symptoms can include pain in the upper abdomen, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, liver and kidney problems or failure, stomach pain, fever, lung damage, skin lesions, and heart damage. If you have been in contact with any brightly colored frogs in the jungle, especially if they have large toes, and you feel any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical help. To be even safer, however, it’s best to leave all frogs (and all creatures, for that matter) alone while in the wilderness to avoid harming them and yourself.

6. What is the most poisonous poison dart frog?

Golden poison dart frog
Golden poison dart frog (Anomaloglossus beebei). Photo: Godfrey R. Bourne.

Found only in Columbia, the golden poison dart frog is capable of killing a human being. In fact, they have enough poison in their skin to kill 10 adults, making them the most toxic land animal on Earth.

7. How quickly could a poison dart frog kill you?

While there isn’t much evidence available about how quickly the most poisonous poison dart from could kill a person, by some local accounts, it’s instantly. And scientists say the amount of poison on the skin of a female golden poison dark frog is enough to stop a human heart.

8. Why and how are poison dart frogs poisonous?

While scientists have speculated about where poison dart frogs get their poisons, a study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the poison comes from the poisonous ants that these frogs eat. The frogs can safely store the ants’ toxic alkaloid molecules in their glands without being poisoned themselves. The ants most likely synthesize these alkaloids or acquire them from the plants they eat.

The frogs have adapted to secrete the toxins through their skin so that would-be predators either die after eating them, or at least get very sick and decide to never try to eat them again.

9. Do poison dart frogs have any predators?

Poison dart frogs have only one natural predator. The fire-bellied snake (Leimadophis epinephelus) is immune to the type of poison secreted by these frogs. Human beings are considered unnatural predators for these frogs, as we capture them for medical research and the pet trade. See more information about their endangerment below.

10. How many kinds of poison dart frogs are there?

Green and black poison dart frog
Green and black poison dart frog (Dendrobates auratus), Buffalo Zoo. Photo: Lord of the Allosaurs.

All poison dart frogs belong to the Dendrobatidae family, which comprises a group of about 200 species of frogs who are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. (Most other frogs are nocturnal.) Because of their colors, which serve as warnings, they are able to sleep undisturbed at night, even though many other animals are hunting for food at that time.

Dedrobates are a sub-family of Dendrobatidae, and there are only five in this group, including the green and black poison dart frog, the yellow-banded poison dart frog, the Rockstone poison dart frog, the dyeing poison dart frog, and the yellow-striped poison dart frog.

11. How do they reproduce?

Poison dart frogs mate throughout the year. The male will lead the female to a nesting spot to lay her eggs and the male will then fertilize the eggs. About 40 eggs are laid per clutch. And both the male and female guard the eggs and ensure they don’t dry out. In 10-18 days, the eggs mature into tadpoles. And then, underscoring their dedication, the frogs will carry the tadpoles on their backs to a stream, pool, or other small body of water. And within a few months, the tadpoles undergo metamorphosis and become frogs.

12. How are poison dart frogs different from other frogs?

Aside from their electric colors, one interesting morphological characteristic of poison dart frogs compared to other frog species is that they have thickened pads, or scutes, on the dorsal surface of their fingers or toes.

Their fatter and wider toes are likely due to the amount of time these frogs spend in trees and on leaves. The appearance of oversized digits, along with their bright colors, makes poison dart frogs fairly easy to identify.

13. How long do poison dart frogs live?

These small amphibians live from 3 to 15 years.

14. Can I have a poison dart frog as a pet?

Red poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio)
Red poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio).

When poison darts frogs are fed a diet that does not include toxic ants, they also lose their poison. But does that make them good pets? While frogs can be easy, low-maintenance pets to care for, any time an animal is viewed as a piece of property that can be bought and sold, they become vulnerable to exploitation. Because there is a market for poison dart frogs at pets, they are vulnerable to poachers who steal them from their homes in the wild rainforests to make money by selling them in the pet trade.

Some conservationists are breeding them in captivity in an effort to lower their sale price and thus discourage poaching. However, when you go to purchase a poison dart frog, how can you know they were not taking from their natural habitat, or even that their parents were?

As a general rule, wild animals should not be kept as pets. If you are intrigued with them, it’s far better to learn everything you can about them and to dedicate your interest by helping to protect their natural habitats and letting them live there where they belong. Which leads to the next question…

15. Are poison dart frogs endangered?

Blue jeans poison dart frog
“Blue jeans” poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio).

Unfortunately, like so many other wild animals, poison dart frogs are an endangered species. As mentioned earlier, they are sought in the pet trade. But even worse, their numbers are in decline because of deforestation and habitat loss. The forested areas that these frogs call home has been cut down and altered at an alarming rate, especially in parts of the Brazilian Amazon.

Fortunately, in Guyana, where several endemic species of Dendrobatidae live, deforestation is only at 1%, so species within these borders have been able to flourish. Dendrobatidae species who live in areas with heavy deforestation, such as in Brazil, are at risk of extinction.

16. How can I help poison dart frogs?

If you care about these special frogs, please do what you can to protect them and their natural habitats. Here are some organizations that are doing that:

Leave a Comment