Poison dart frogs: poison, yes; dart, not so much

by Greg Mayer

The brightly colored, poisonous frogs of the family Dendrobatidae are usually called poison dart frogs, but the name is a bit of a misnomer. While they do have toxic alkaloids in their skins, only three species are definitely known to be used for poisoning blowgun darts– Phyllobates aurotaenia, Phyllobates bicolor, and Phyllobates terribilis— all by the Noanama and Embera Choco Indians of western Colombia. The most toxic of these, and the most toxic of all dendrobatids, is the very bright yellow, and appropriately named, Phyllobates terribilis.


Phyllobates terribilis, photo by Wilfried Berns, via Wikipedia

The foremost students of these frogs have been Chuck Myers of the American Museum of Natural History, and his colleague John Daly. During a visit to the Museum some years ago, Chuck kindly showed me the terribilis he kept in his office, but I did not take any pictures, hence the Wiki photo. Their studies have shown that there is considerable individual, geographic, and interspecific variation in the poisons present in the frogs, and that individual frogs may contain multiple toxic compounds. Some of this variation results from the fact that the frogs obtain the alkaloids, at least in part, by uptake from arthropod prey.

The American Museum has made all the back issues of its scientific publications available as pdf’s, and many of  Myers and Daly’s papers, including quality color plates, are available there.  I would recommend

1976. Preliminary evaluation of skin toxins and vocalizations in taxonomic and evolutionary studies of poison-dart frogs (Dendrobatidae). Bulletin of the AMNH 157:175-262;

1978. A dangerously toxic new frog (Phyllobates) used by Emberá Indians of western Colombia, with discussion of blowgun fabrication and dart poisoning. Bulletin of the AMNH 161:309-365 (with Borys Malkin);

1995. Discovery of the Costa Rican poison frog Dendrobates granuliferus in sympatry with Dendrobates pumilio, and comments on taxonomic use of skin alkaloids. AM Novitates 3144:1-21 (with H.M. Garrafo, A. Wisnieski, and J.F. Cover).


  1. newenglandbob
    Posted August 22, 2009 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Yes, but is the soup made from them spicy?

  2. MadScientist
    Posted August 22, 2009 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Awww, they’re so cute – frogs are so much better than kitties. 🙂

    What sort of arthropods do they extract alkaloids from?

    Long ago (and in a galaxy far away) I met some indigenous people who used some kind of plant alkaloid to poison their darts and arrow tips (they didn’t seem to have developed powerful hunting bows). I regret not asking what plants they use and how to prepare the gunk. It’s one of those things that you just have to see to believe. They’d shoot an animal then track it until it can no longer run. In contrast, if I shoot an animal with my bow I expect it to drop on the spot or within a few seconds – otherwise I’ve probably just maimed the animal.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 22, 2009 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      Denigration of kittehs is ALMOST a banning offense here!!!!

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 23, 2009 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      Ants, mostly. See the refs of the paper by Ian Wang and Brad Shaffer mentioned in my previous poison dart frog post (I’m away from my office, and don’t have access to the article or the pdf at the moment).


  3. Posted August 22, 2009 at 8:58 am | Permalink


    Yeah, I had read that they soon lost their poisonous nature in captivity because of a change in diet.

    This article references a PNAS article that says the poison is from mites that they eat: http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0514-frogs.html

    • Hempenstein
      Posted August 23, 2009 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      Neat! Here’s one from 1980 that says they retain toxicity after 6yrs in captivity, while lab-reared progeny are nontoxic, compatible with the dietary source. (Perhaps this one is what started that line of reasoning.)


      Some interesting-looking linx follow the abstract, too.

      (If multiple posts similar to this one suddenly appear, it’s because as far as I can tell they’ve been disappearing on posting.)

  4. JefFlyingV
    Posted August 22, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I may be wrong, but isn’t the red frog from French Guyana the most poisonous of the dart frogs?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 23, 2009 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think so– do you know the scientific name of the Guyana frog?


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