Pretty Poison

Protected by a cloak of color

Poison frogs are wildly colored, their flamboyant “attire” a warning to predators that they are a dangerous dining choice.

BY Karyl Carmignani

Photography by Ken Bohn
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Bright as baubles from a fairy tale, these energetic little hopping gems dot the hot, damp forests of Central and South America. But there is nothing “happily ever after” for predators of these vividly colored amphibians; the 300 or so Dendrobatidae species of poison dart frog exude toxins from their skin that can deter or destroy an enemy on contact. While only a few species pose a threat to people, the prince of poison is the golden variety, which carries enough toxicity to kill 10 grown humans, making it the most poisonous animal on the planet. But, as Erika DiVenti, senior reptile keeper, explained, “Poison frogs are less toxic in the Zoo. That may be because they are eating different arthropods—and those arthropods are eating different plants—than they would in the wild.” During digestion, the frog is able to “manufacture” toxins in poison glands just under the skin by utilizing the different chemicals in its prey items. These tiny, boldly behaving, diurnal frogs are termed aposomatic—advertising their danger to predators with their badge of bright colors. Other non- or less-toxic species piggyback on this defense strategy, mimicking their coloration to also deter predators. For predators, it is a cautionary tale.

JEWELS OF THE FOREST Clockwise from top left: Black-legged poison frog; Blue poison frog; Splash-back poison frog; Second row: Green and black poison frog; Golden poison frog; Dyeing poison frog.

JEWELS OF THE FOREST
Clockwise from top left: Black-legged poison frog; Blue poison frog; Splash-back poison frog; Second row: Green and black poison frog; Golden poison frog; Dyeing poison frog.

Hunting for the Right Name

Resourceful hunters from various indigenous tribes throughout the frogs’ range have used the poison from the frogs on their blowpipe darts and arrow tips, so the animals were aptly named poison arrow frogs or poison dart frogs. One method of extracting poison was piercing the one-inch-long amphibian with a stick, causing the animal a great deal of stress, and triggering a foamy froth of poison to form on its back, which the hunters could then dip their weapons into. Even a year later, the batrachotoxin poison could cause paralysis and death in the monkeys and birds they were hunting. Fortunately, the gruesome practice of goring the frogs for their poison is waning, so much of the current literature refers to the colorful creatures as simply poison frogs. Others insist that poison frog is a more accurate name for the group, since only about three species of the Dendrobatidae family are used to poison arrow tips: Phyllobates terribilis, P. bicolor, and P. aurotaenia.

COLORFUL CLIMBERS The dyeing poison frog gets its name from an old legend stating that mixtures used with part of its skin could change the color of parrot feathers. This has never been observed, but the name lives on.

COLORFUL CLIMBERS
The dyeing poison frog gets its name from an old legend stating that mixtures used with part of its skin could change the color of parrot feathers. This has never been observed, but the name lives on.

Secrets of Secretions

Each species of poison frog produces a different blend of alkaloids and other chemicals that make up its signature poison and level of toxicity. The three most toxic species all inhabit Colombia. Scientists have been investigating ways these wildly noxious substances might possibly be used in the medical field. Some poison frog alkaloids have been found to help people with certain heart and circulation problems. And the endangered phantasmal poison frog of Ecuador produces a toxin called epibatidine, which can block pain 200 times more effectively than morphine and without the pesky side effects. Though it is barely one inch long, this strikingly striped frog packs a medicinal punch!

PRETTY POLLYWOGS Poison frogs lavish attention on the eggs, which soon morph into tadpoles (also called pollywogs). These are sometimes carried on a parent's back to a safe place where they can absorb their tail and develop into frogs.

PRETTY POLLYWOGS
Poison frogs lavish attention on the eggs, which soon morph into tadpoles (also called pollywogs). These are sometimes carried on a parent’s back to a safe place where they can absorb their tail and develop into frogs.

Poison Parents

One of the most unusual behavioral characteristics in the Dendrobatidae family is the level of parental care doled out to the offspring. While it varies somewhat between species, for many of the vibrantly colored poison frogs, the male frog entices the female with an ardent call to a leafy, covered, humid spot on land where she deposits her eggs in a gelatinous mass.

BABIES ON BACK Poison frog parents shuttle the young to a safe, moist area to develop. Sometimes, that's when keepers discover the newcomers!

BABIES ON BACK
Poison frog parents shuttle the young to a safe, moist area to develop. Sometimes, that’s when keepers discover the newcomers!

Once they develop into tadpoles, one of the parents will “shuttle” the little ones to a suitable body of water, such as a secluded puddle in a bromeliad. In some species the male protects and nurtures the eggs and newly hatched tadpoles, while in others mom does the doting. The female has the presence of mind to lay extra eggs, which are laden with poison, to feed to her tadpoles, who then become poisonous themselves—a handy defense when you’re the size of a Tic Tac®. Once a youngster has absorbed its tail and developed into a tiny replica of its parents, it is free to hop around in search of insects.

LEAVE ME ALONE The black-legged poison frog is the second-most toxic of the wild poison frogs. This species, native to Colombia, is listed as near threatened by the IUCN.

LEAVE ME ALONE
The black-legged poison frog is the second-most toxic of the wild poison frogs. This species, native to Colombia, is listed as near threatened by the IUCN.

DidyouknowPoisonous vs. venomous, it’s all in the delivery! Poison frogs are not venomous because they don’t bite you like, say a snake, to inject venom. These frogs are passively harmful, with poison on the outside activated upon ingestion; venomous animals inject their poison into the bloodstream via fangs or spines.

Labor of Love

For reptile keepers like Erika, every day is different. “Cliché as it sounds, it really is a labor of love.” She explained how the poison frogs on exhibit in Reptile Walk have little habitats that provide great viewing for the guests while also containing features that the animals seek in the wild, like a moist, secure place to lay eggs. Each day, Erika checks the shallow dish with a cover of bromeliads for miniature eggs. “The male frogs carry the young, so sometimes that’s how we find them,” she added.

The babies look different from the adults and they are too tiny for a microchip, so keepers identify the young in their records with pictures or drawings, as they change and develop so rapidly. Erika explained that the tadpole holding rack located behind the scenes has filtered, temperature-controlled water with many sensors, and a backup generator to ensure the well-being of the frogs. Later, when the frogs have grown legs, they move to a morphing tank, which is half water and half land. Here they “absorb their tail and don’t eat much,” Erika said, “a process that takes a week to a month, depending upon the species.” It is next to impossible to sex the miniature frogs, as males and females look the same. But sometimes, like when the air pressure changes, a male juvenile will start to call and its throat pouch enlarges, which reveals its gender. “We sex them by call, not by looks,” Erika succinctly observed. The poison frogs soon graduate to a small tank, and finally a large, communal living arrangement, where they can live up to 15 years.

Hop over to the Zoo’s Reptile Walk and feast your eyes upon our amphibian jewels: bumblebee, green-and-black, splash-back, dyeing, and black-legged poison frogs are all on display. Look, but don’t touch!

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