Poison dart frog: partly deadly poisonous, yet harmless to keep

Poison dart frog

The extremely strikingly colored treecreeper frogs are among popular frog amphibians in terraristics. Who does not like to have at home an animal that can kill a full-grown man in a short time?! In fact, the small tropical frogs are uncomplicated in the attitude and, above all, completely harmless. Why this is so, you will learn in this post, as well as how to properly care for the posh South Americans.

About the biology

The tree climbing frogs (Dendrobatidae, therefore also called dendrobates) are often also called poison dart frogs or color frogs. At present approx. 170 species are distinguished. Some tree climbing frogs are extremely poisonous, but still only grow to about 12 – 50 mm in size, so they are rather "tiny". The generalized German name "Pfeilgiftfrosche" for the whole family is confusing and not correct, because actually only three species of the genus Phyllobates are used by indigenous peoples for the extraction of arrow poison.

Origin and natural distribution

Tree climbing frogs are diurnal frogs that are among the most colorful amphibians of all. The species described so far live in tropical regions of South and Central America. Natural range extends from Peru and Bolivia to Brazil. The Amazon basin is colonized and habitats extend further to Suriname, the Guyana Shield to Venezuela. Dendrobates are also native to the west of the Andes, from Ecuador to Colombia and Central America.

In their natural habitat, these brightly colored frogs live at daytime temperatures of 25 to 28 °C and nighttime temperatures of around 22 to 25 °C, with a relative humidity of 70 to 100%. Dendrobates, depending on the species, can be found living on the ground, in trees, or even in the treetops.

Things to know

The usually contrasting and bright coloration indicates to the predators of the tree climbers that they are completely inedible. The sudden expulsion of toxic substances through the skin is an effective defense strategy that is also used by many other animals, such as the native fire salamander.

Indigenous peoples of Colombia and Panama traditionally use the poisonous skin secretion of frogs as an arrow poison. Some species contain so much poison that hunters only need to sweep their blowpipe arrows across the back of the live frog. Other taxa are impaled on wooden sticks and warmed slightly over the fire. The secretion emitted in the process is applied to the arrowheads. Prey killed with a poison dart die immediately. Some toxins are also deadly for humans!

Tree climbing frogs are not poisonous from birth, however. Rather, they acquire their toxicity by eating a wide variety of small creatures, especially harmless mites. The poison dart frogs apparently accumulate the, partly harmless, nitrogenous substances of the arthropods, so-called alkaloids, in the body and change them chemically so that they are much more toxic than the parent substances. Which enzyme in the frog’s body makes the creation of these violent toxins possible, however, has not yet been finally clarified scientifically.

Not only does the frog organism metabolize toxins, it also accumulates toxins unchanged, which are ingested through feeding. The toxicity of captive animals decreases over time if no venomous or. suitable food animals are available. Captive-born offspring in most cases no longer possess skin toxins. After the second generation at the latest, the offspring are completely free of toxins.

By the way: About one third of the species in the family of the dendrobates produce skin poisons. The remaining part of the family, i.e. those that cannot produce alkaloids for self-protection, resemble the inedible species in their coloration and markings. They deceive possible predators by this adaptation. This evolutionary selection advantage is called Batessian mimicry.

Potential predators, however, must first learn the inedibility of tree climbing frogs. In most cases, a single experience for a predator is sufficient to develop a lifelong aversion. Now it can happen that a poison dart frog becomes a victim, but all other individuals of this population are spared from this hunter from now on and thus gain a survival advantage.

Keeping and care

Since poison dart frogs from captive breeding are harmless, these beautifully colored frogs are suitable for keeping in tropical terrariums. With all my explanations you should consider that the keeping conditions of different species are different. In any case you should get enough literature before you buy the necessary utensils and the animals!

Now to the terrarium: The terrarium should be at least 50 cm x 50 cm x 50 cm for a single animal. Bromeliads and climbing plants are suitable for planting, so that the tree climbers can also climb. The ground can be covered with oak leaves or bark mulch. To ensure high humidity, I recommend back and side walls made of coconut fiber or similar material. Also you should pay attention to hiding places. For this purpose, a mangrove root and half a coconut shell is suitable. A watering place provides the necessary humidification.

Tree climbing frogs are diurnal and feel comfortable in small to medium sized terrariums. However, you should consider that the animals defend their territory and therefore a correspondingly large terrarium with sufficient retreat possibilities must be available with group keeping. I also recommend you to provide a small water part including a waterfall.

To keep the humidity level constantly high (at least 80%), I recommend purchasing an automatic sprinkler system. The temperature can be controlled with heating mats or. regulate heating cables and should be between 22 °C and 28 °C.

Dendrobates naturally feed on a variety of small and tiny insects, arachnids and arthropods. The frogs react purely to the movement of the food, therefore only live food is possible as food. These include fruit flies, bean leaf lice, springtails, woodlice, etc.

Small crickets and crickets are also a suitable food, but they also make some noise.

Some keepers recommend enriching the food with a nutritional supplement, as this vitamin-mineral mixture is said to have positive effects on the health of the animals.

As daily care measures there are different tasks, like e.g. B. the control of the humidity, the temperature control, the cleaning of the water part (if there is no filter), the regular feeding (approx. every 2-3 days) and the daily condition control.

For keeping for beginners the following species are suitable: Dendrobates auratus, Dendrobates galactonotus, Dendrobates tinctorius and Phyllobates auroatenia.

When buying the animals you should pay attention to the health condition. Within two weeks of purchase, you must report the animals to the appropriate authority (z. B. District Office), as they are protected species. The genera Dendrobates, Epipedobates, Phyllobates and Minyobates are listed on Appendix II of the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The trade with these animals is strictly regulated.


Tree climbing frogs are beautifully colored frogs that are great to watch and can provide many interesting conversation starters.

Michael Friend is a full-time teacher at a Bavarian secondary school with a soft spot for the busy nature. In his studies he took biology as a didactic subject. He is also an author for various magazines and an active member of several associations, including the "Sukkulentenfreunde Passau".

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At school my classmate and I have to prepare a presentation about the poison dart frog. This information is very useful and helpful. Thx!

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