Introduction to Poison-Dart Frogs

 

Poison-dart frogs are indigenous to the warm, humid areas of South and Central America. They are diurnal, as opposed to nocturnal, and display vivid, aposematic colorations in striking patterns as a means of warning potential predators of their toxic skin secretions. They exhibit intriguing social interactions which include elaborate courtship and fascinating terrestrial oviposition, thus making them a pleasure to collect, observe and breed in captivity!  In their natural habitat, poison-dart frogs metabolize specific rainforest substrates provided by their natural diet and secrete alkaloid skin toxins. Nonetheless, it is a myth that all 170 brightly colored species are used for poisoning blowgun darts. In fact, only 3 extraordinarily-toxic species of Phyllobates are known to be used for poisoning blowgun darts, and the remaining 167 species secrete skin toxins that are harmless to humans. Interestingly, these toxins probably sour the taste of their skin just enough to encourage their predators to spit them out. Furthermore, poison-dart frogs that are hatched and raised in captivity are not at all poisonous because their diet lacks the necessary substrate(s) for the production of these toxins. This is yet another reason why these frogs enjoy such popularity - their beauty can be appreciated without the worry of toxic effects!

 

Poison-dart frogs inhabit those parts of the world commonly referred to as the tropics; where with the exception of minor variations, humidity, sunlight and temperatures remain consistently high. Although these frogs live in a very homogeneous climate, they inhabit a variety of small environments or microhabitats with differing climatic characteristics, and the lifestyles from species to species, also vary. These dissimilarities merit careful consideration when caring for these frogs in captivity. While some species are ground-dwellers in lowland or montane rain forest; other forest species inhabit trees. Some may be found along streams, away from water or even in open, dry land where sufficient humidity is provided by shaded ground and/or under vegetation.

 

The poison dart frog collector can expect a successful experience if attention is paid to the behavior and habitat requirements of his selected species.   Interestingly, most poison-dart frogs can live upwards of 10-15 years in captivity with the provision of some basic elements and proper care!  Based on my experience, here are the key components necessary for successfully maintaining these "jewels of the rainforest:"

  • An appropriate enclosure that addresses the age, species and number of frogs that will co-habit,
  • A reliable food source,
  • A clean water source,
  • A consistent day-night photoperiod, and
  • A stable temperature with adequate humidity.

 

 

A Little Education

 

I recommend researching the natural history and husbandry requirements of each of the species you plan to collect before purchasing them.  Although many information sources exist, not all are clear-cut, accurate and precise.  This is especially true as it applies to the salient points of poison-dart frog captive care.  Some recommended articles, books and scientific papers are listed below and are intended to guide the curious hobbyists in their pursuit of accurate and relevant information. I encourage you to contact other successful poison dart frog hobbyists, and I also offer myself as a resource.

           

The following magazine articles offer exceptional pictures that detail the natural history of the poison dart frog, and/or the author’s experience in successfully maintaining them in captivity.

 

Multicolored Poison Frogs, Dendrobates, Reptilia, Canela and Vazquez, March 1998.

 

           

Epipedobates Tricolor, Reptilia, Canela, Canela and Vazquez, March 1998.

 

 

Keeping and Breeding Poison Frogs, Reptiles, Todd Kelley, August 1998.

 

Dendrobates Ventrimaculatus, A complex of Magnificent Little Poison dart frogsReptiles, Fenolio and Powell, August 1998.

 

All That Glitters…Discover the Real Poison Dart Frog, the Golden Poison Frog, Reptiles, Sean Stewart, May 2001.

 

 

The following books offer specific beneficial information. 

 

Dendrobatidae, Poison Frogs, The Fantastic Journey Through Ecuador, Peru & Columbia by S. Christmann. 

 

Poison Frogs, Schmidt and Henkel.  Distributed by Zoo Book Sales in the USA.

 

Jewels of the Rainforest, Poison Frogs of the Family Dendrobatidae, Jerry Walls, TFH, publisher. 

This is an exceptional “coffee table” book that contains extraordinary photos that are second to none.  The information is general and somewhat out-dated but the book is worth every penny due to the photos and its overview of the family of frogs.

 

Poison-Arrow Frogs, Their Natural History and Care in Captivity, Ralf Heselhaus. 

This book contains an exciting recount of the author’s expeditions to Panama and French Guiana. The chapters dealing with the terrarium care of frogs and captive breeding are particularly valuable. 

 

Poison Dart Frogs, Samples and Wattley, THF. 

This collaboration of a handful of hobbyists and their experiences with captive husbandry contains solid information on food sources, recommended terrarium plants, and egg and tadpole care.

 

A Natural History of Amphibians, Stebbins and Cohen.

The information presented is based on academic teachings, laboratory research and field observations of all amphibians, and their interactions with their environment in the continuum of their life cycles.

 

Biology of Amphibians, Duellman and Trueb.

This is considered the “Herpetological Bible.”  It is academically based and written, and offers much more than you need to know for the successful captive care of Poison dart frogs.

 

 

The following scientific articles are valuable resources offering reliable didactic and pragmatic information, but they may be difficult to obtain:

 

Poison Dart Frogs, Myers, C.W. and Daly, J.W., Scientific American, Vol. 248, No. 2,1983.

 

Maternal Brood Care by Dendrobates Pumilio: A Frog That Feeds Its Young, Brust, D. G., Journal of Herpetology,   Vol. 27, No. 1.  1993.

 

Complex Broodcare and Reproductive Behavior in Captive Poison-Arrow Frogs - Dendrobates Pumilio, Weygoldt, P., Behav. Ecol. Sociobiology. 1980.

 

Captive Management and Breeding of Dendrobatid and Neotropical Hylid Frogs at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Cover, Barnett, and Saunders, p. 267-273, 1994.  Contained within Captive Management and Conservation of Amphibians and Reptiles, J.B. Murphy, K. Adler and J.T. Collins, Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Ithaca, New York.

 

Bioactive Alkaloids of Frog Skin: Combinatorial Bioprospecting Reveals that Pumiliotoxins Have an Arthropod Source, John W. Daly, Kaneko, Wilham, Garraffo, Spande, Espinosa, and Donnelly, PNAS, Vol. 99, No 22, 2002.            

 

                          

Selecting a Species

 
In the past, beginners were encouraged to begin their collections with species like auratus or tinctorius but there are now such a wide variety of captive-bred species,  I also recommend species such as terribilis, bicolor, tricolor, galactonotus, and azureus. Your specie selection should be based on aesthetics, behavior and size.  Do you want a large ground-dweller that displays well in a planted terrarium, or would you prefer a smaller frog that can be seen resting delicately on the tip of a bromeliad axil? Which color most captures your interest; blue, red, or the contrast of lemon-yellow on a jet black background? Do you want a uniformly colored-frog or one displaying multiple colors, patterns, dots or reticulated patterns? Would you prefer a specie whose care requires little expertise or one that presents a challenge to maintain? Would you enjoy a frog with a bold, commanding demeanor, or one that is socially and communally interactive? Would you prefer a frog whose call is especially melodic, or one whose call is shrill and rhythmical?  The choices are endlessly exciting!

Dart frogs can be bought and raised individually.  I do not think they need companionship but you are missing out on many of the joys of keeping dart frogs if you only have a single one or many single specimens of many different species.  The behaviors that these frogs of the same species (and especially opposite sex) display toward one another is awesome to watch.  Even if you do not want to breed the frogs, I recommend raising a group of the same species in the same terrarium and separate them into smaller pairs or groups as they mature.  You will provide yourself with an endless amount of joy by watching these interactions. 

Dendrobates tinctorius and D. azureus dart frogs can often be raised together in groups, however as adults, same sexed rivalries often prevail.  As adult frogs, primarily females, may bully and harass other females by wrestling or squatting on the weaker female.  In some cases a dominant female can kill other females in the tank. Not too mention, females will eat the eggs of other females in the same tank.  Males of these species also can compete with each other but usually in more of a psychological manner and not as physical.  However, I have successfully kept terrariums with azureus and tinctorius by providing space, lots of hiding spots, lots of food and a watchful eye.  There are a great variety of dart frogs and many are better candidates for keeping in a group, such as E. tricolor, D. auratus, D. galactonotus, P. terribilis, P. bicolor and D. leucomelas.  While these species often show similar behavior and social interactions, they usually are more tolerant of a social situation. 

Design the terrarium with the species in mind.  For terrestrial species, such as, auratus, azureus, leucomelas and tinctorius, provide a terrarium with more ground space than height.  Arboreal species, such as, “thumbnails,” ventrimaculatus, pumilio, and fantasticus prefer tall terrariums that offer multiple platform and plant levels and a combination of ground space and height should be provided for species, such as, galactonotus, tricolor and other semi-arboreal species. 

A mixed species terrarium is possible.  Remember each species inhabit a characteristic "micro-niche"; such as terrestrial wet and cool, OR terrestrial dry and warm, OR arboreal within a bromeliad and dry.  Also each species may be bold and territorial, or bold and social, or shy and recluse.   Furthermore, each individual within a species can be bold, timid, or down right schizoaffective.  So in designing a mix species tank you need to plan specifically for the needs of each species beforehand. 

In addition, you need to provide more space and "micro-niches" to support a mixed species environment.  You also should not put particularly shy species with bold species, especially if both utilize the same "micro-niche" requirements and space.  You need to feed more and be more observant.  If an individual frog is looking thin, it will need to be removed in order to prevent demise.  Also, when introducing frogs together, make sure they have been quarantined especially if from different sources.  They should also be similar in size if they inhabit similar niches in the terrarium. 

For those that want to set-up an "indigenous terrarium", here are a few brief suggestions.  Such terrariums start with finding a variety of indigenous plants from the area you choose to recreate.  Then you create the niches necessary to house the species of frogs you choose.  For example, if you wish to do a "Costa Rican Vivarium" you would create a vivarium for Green & Black auratus, Phyllobates lugubris and Blue Jean pumilio to thrive together.  If you decided on a "Guyanan exhibit", you could keep tinctorius with ventrimaculatus.  For Brazil, galactonotus with Brazil-nut thumbnail frogs. 

In large terrariums with a water feature, I do not recommend fish, for a few reasons.  One, fish may introduce pathogens into the terrarium and effect the frogs health.  Also, fish usually need a few inches of standing water to live and the dart frogs may drown in this environment. 

 

Preparing the Enclosure

 

Design the terrarium with the species in mind.  For terrestrial species, such as, auratus, azureus, leucomelas and tinctorius, provide a terrarium with more ground space than height.  Arboreal species, such as, “thumbnails,” ventrimaculatus, pumilio, and fantasticus prefer tall terrariums that offer multiple platform and plant levels and a combination of ground space and height should be provided for species, such as, galactonotus, tricolor and other semi-arboreal species. 

 

I recommend beginning with a simple, small enclosure.  There are few guidelines for determining the number of frogs that can be successfully kept in any specific sized- tank.  Some species mix better than others but I usually recommend 2 gallons of space per juvenile frog and 5 gallons of space per adult frog.  For example, the auratus, leucomelas, galactonotus, and tricolor do well in groups while the tinctorius and azureus prefer small, social environments of 2-4 animals.  Frogs cohabiting in groups fare better with ample hiding spaces and micro-territories, so make certain your terrarium provides hiding niches, such as, plant leaves, coconut huts, or driftwood.  Also, make sure there is plenty of food.  Frogs coexisting in groups require a plentiful food source since their nutritional needs increase due to higher baseline stress levels caused by having to compete for food.  Observe your frogs to make certain that no one individual is being bullied to the extent that it becomes malnourished.  If this occurs, remove the smaller frog from the terrarium and raise it individually until its weight increases. 

 

I recommend setting-up an inexpensive plastic Pal-Pen or shoebox-sized enclosure for the quarantine of new frogs or froglets.  Large enclosures often interfere with effective observation and may actually prevent them from finding their food.  Place about ½ inch of pea-gravel or leca balls in the container and cover with live moss, dried sheet moss or sphagnum moss. 

 

 

Place a ficus-vine cutting, or other hardy tropical foliage to serve as “terrarium furniture” and add a hide-box or piece of wood.  Make sure the container is free of cracks or gaps to prevent the escape of fruit flies, water and frogs.   A half-inch of water added to the gravel or leca ball substrate keeps the moss moist but not submerged.   I cover the Pal-Pens with a sheet of plastic so the snapped top will hold it in place. This keeps humidity, flies and frogs securely inside.

 

 

I quarantine all new frogs in a separate room for at least 30 days. When adding the new frogs to the terrarium, I place them in a dark area with no light.  The next day, the lights should be turned on and the frogs then fed and misted.  Feed them sparingly for the first day since they may still be stressed and may become intimidated by their food crawling over them.  Expect frogs to be shy and eat little the first few days while acclimating to their new environment. I recommend misting the terrarium every other day with a hand-misting bottle. Froglets should be watched carefully to make certain they are growing as expected.  A froglet should double its size every 4-6 weeks and become rounded in shape, and active. 

 

Automated misting systems are not required for small enclosures and often interfere with daily observation and contact with the frogs. I learned much about the normal behavior of poison-dart frogs as a result of my daily observation and hand-misting. Place your terrarium frogs in an area where temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit can be maintained. DO NOT place them in direct sunlight! This will heat the small, sealed enclosure to temperatures that are detrimental to young frogs.  It is best to provide 12 hours of light (non-heat producing, fluorescent lighting is preferred) and 12 hours of complete darkness.

 

To summarize, there is no one recipe for success but the following simple guidelines will ensure that your frogs grow rapidly and will be ready for a larger tank in just a few months:

 

  • Enclosure size: approximately 2 gallons per juvenile frog and 5 gallons per frog adult frog.
  • Foundation substrate: gravel or leca balls.
  • Ground cover substrate: live tropical moss, java moss, dried sheet moss (moistened), sphagnum moss, or dead oak or magnolia leaves.
  • Humidity: >60% (adding plants, hand-misting, and plastic coverings all increase humidity).
  • Temperature: 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit (NO direct sunlight)
  • Lighting photoperiod: Fluorescent lighting that provides minimal heat and 12 hours of light. (Note: dart-frogs do not require full spectrum lighting although some anecdotal studies have shown that it may increase breeding activity and social behavior.) 
  • Dechlorinated water: A product such as, Prime, removes chlorine from tap water. Chlorine will also evaporate from regular tap water by allowing it to stand for 24 hours. Many people use bottled water, carbon filters or reverse osmosis but I prefer “hard”, dechlorinated water because I feel that the minerals are beneficial to plants and tadpoles. Hard water contains dissolved minerals (such as, calcium and magnesium, mainly in combination with bicarbonate, sulphate and chloride) which are not present in soft water. 

 

Setting-up Space for Older Juvenile and Adult Dart Frogs

 

Again, there is no set formula. The set-up can be simple as described above, but on a larger scale, or the terrarium can be sophisticated with drains, false bottoms, waterfalls, multiple levels, etc.  Remember, you need a good, safe source of chlorine-free water, temperatures between 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity of at least 60% and a day-night photoperiod of at least 10 hours of light each day.

The following design is simple yet effective:

  • First, fill the terrarium with gravel or leca balls.  Leca balls are lighter in weight but a little more expensive than pea or landscape gravel.  Both substrates can be shaped to form the desired landscape, and ponds and streams can be easily created by adding recessions. 
  • Next, root plants in the gravel and cover the ground substrate with live moss.  Live moss is available from a variety of terrarium supply companies (see links).
  •  Finally, add a breeding hut and/or some drift wood or cork bark for climbing, hiding and aesthetics.  In some terrariums I have used silicone to affix coco-panels, cork bark or coconut bark along the back as substrate for bromeliads, miniature orchids and even java moss. This provides an appealing, naturalistic backdrop and a vertical area in which frogs can explore.  Hand-misting is sufficient or a misting system can be incorporated in order to keep the tank clean, remove fecal matter from leaves, and provide daily showers. This will also effectively maintain proper humidity.  The excess water will accumulate in the depressed areas of substrate, where it can be periodically removed by siphoning.  Some prefer a false bottom tank with a plumbed-drain, and I have even seen 1-2 inch overflow drains well-utilized in the design described above.

The plants and mosses will grow well as long as adequate lighting is provided and over-flooding is prevented.  Normal fluorescent lighting or compact fluorescent lamps work well, but be sure that the lights do not overheat the terrarium. Progress slowly and keep the design simple as you get to know the frogs and their lifestyles before attempting larger tanks with larger frog populations.  Here are some examples of simple and aesthetic terrariums.

 

 

 

 

Food Source

 

The quality of food determines the quality of the animal’s health and beauty. In the wild, these colorful little frogs eat an insect diet found only in the rainforests of Central and South America.  This diet is rich in a compound called alkaloid-chemicals that are transferred from plant-to-insect and ultimately, to the frog’s skin.  These alkaloids build up in the frog’s skin and cause them to be unpalatable to predators.  These chemicals are mildly irritating to humans, causing minor numbness and burning, except for three Phyllobates species which produce more deadly neurotoxins.  However, bred in captivity, these frogs are 100% harmless to humans and alkaloid-free since instead of eating their natural diet of rainforest insects, they eat crickets, fruit flies, termites, etc which are absent of these alkaloid chemicals.

 

Since local pet stores rarely have a consistently available stock of small crickets suitable for froglets, it is important to have a food source in place prior to purchasing your frog. To begin, you will need to order fruit flies and supplies (such as, culturing medium, yeast and culturing containers).  Especially if you intend to culture them yourself. Culturing is simple and involves a minimum of time and expense but it does take practice the first few times.  There are a number of fruit-fly suppliers in the marketplace including Ed’s Fly Meat and Carolina Biological (see links). Most suppliers sell both hydei (larger) and melanogaster (smaller) fruit-flies and their culturing supplies.  I recommend the melanogaster for froglets and hydei for older dart frogs.  Since these fruit-flies are wingless or have non-functioning wings, they crawl instead of fly and can be easily shook from the culture container into the frog tanks.    I recommend buying a plastic funnel so you can easily transfer flies into new cultures.

Crickets are another food source best purchased from cricket farms where they are generally sold in minimums of five hundred.  Crickets can be expensive and are not necessary for smaller collections; however, they offer excellent nutrition and seem to promote more rapid frog growth than fruit flies.  If possible, I recommend at least an occasional cricket-meal. The frogs usually start by eating four to five day-old crickets. Larger frogs eat 1-2 week-old crickets (1/8" and 3/8" respectively).  Crickets tend to dry-out easily, so I recommend keeping them in a Rubbermaid-like container adding a couple of holes in the lid for ventilation.  They need a water source, either damp sponges or commercially-available gels, and egg-carton cardboard on which to crawl.  I recommend commercially available cricket feed that is supplemented with nutrients specifically formulated to gut-load the crickets. When you are ready to feed the frogs, shake the egg-cardboard into a tall plastic cup using a funnel and then shake the crickets from the cup into the tanks.  Other food alternatives include termites, springtails, and field “swipings” in the warmer months of the year. 

I recommend a once-a-week “dusting” of the food source in equal amounts with vitamin and mineral supplements.  While there are supplements on the market specifically formulated for dart-frogs, I do not know if they are superior to Rep-Cal and Herptivite, which I have used successfully for many years.  It is most important to select a supplement that is readily available.  Deposit the flies or crickets in a plastic cup using a funnel, add the supplement(s), shake or twirl until the food is coated and then carefully shake the food into the enclosure.

 

Where to Buy Frogs

 

While captive-born animals are less likely to harbor disease, I recommend purchasing frogs only from reputable breeders, and quarantining them for at least 30 days.  There are many, easily transmitted diseases that can afflict dart-frogs and ultimately, wipe-out a complete collection.  Also, be suspicious of brokers who combine frogs from various sources. This leads to compromised environmental conditions and potential health problems.

 

 

Stress in Poison dart frogs

 

It’s important to realize that handling and transporting these frogs cause them quite a bit of stress. This may result in behavior that closely imitates death. They spasm, stretch their legs, bend their arms and then become absolutely still. They appear to be dead and may remain like this for more than an hour, or even overnight. But beware; they may not be dead at all! In complete frustration, I have actually left such a frog in the vivarium overnight and returned the next morning to find it alive and seemingly healthy. So, do not throw away any frog that appears dead too soon!  Treat you frogs as if they were fish, watch them in their terrarium but do not make a habit of taking them out and handling them.

 

In the above paragraph, I describe a condition which is believed to be hypocalcemic tetany. After some intense activity, stress, or after hypothermia, a frog may respire so fast (hyperventilate) that it blows off sufficient carbon dioxide for the ionized blood calcium to drop, leading to spasms. Dr. Jack Frenkel states that he usually keeps a couple of TUMS in his greenhouse and by rubbing them together he drops some calcium carbonate powder on the frogs skin, which he later mists to help the calcium absorption. Their spasms generally disappear quickly he has found - however he has not been able to run a controlled experiment or to measure blood calcium. Try it.  Frogs in which this occurs may also be low in vitamin D, which can be dusted on them too, and later dusted on food.  Thanks Dr. Frenkel!

Coming Soon...more detailed information and video clips on keeping dart-frogs, fruit-fly cultures and more tips to succeed with these awesome frogs!