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

August 21, 2009 • 10:07 pm

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).