Mini Spotlight: Poison Frogs

Some of the smallest but best known residents of the rainforests in South and Central America are beautiful but sometimes toxic amphibians known as Poison Dart Frogs. But there are some good reasons to change their names! How about Pharmaceutical Frogs? Or the less dramatic, but more widely accepted “Poison Frogs?”   

First, let’s get rid of the “dart” designation (and also the completely inaccurate “poison arrow frog” name), despite what you may have seen in all those Indiana Jones movies. There are almost 100 varieties of these brightly colored jewels of the rainforest, and only three are known to have once been used by indigenous peoples to make blow darts more lethal. The toxicity of the Poison Frog’s skin is related to its diet of ants and termites, who are also living on the forest floor and who are safely and cheerfully eating toxic plants. A frog who dines on them produces a sticky secretion through its porous skin, and it’s true that a very few hunters used to carefully catch these tiny creatures and rub dart tips in this secretion. More significantly, though, this sickening and sometimes lethal secretion, in addition to the frogs’ beautiful aposematic coloration, helps the Poison Frogs warn and repel predators.

Our non-Hollywood, more scientific approach to the Poison Frogs these days is revealing some exciting medicinal possibilities for these tiny (about 1 ½ inches at the largest) creatures! Their natural secretions may help mitigate human pain: one species, known as the Epipedrobates tricolor, has enabled the development of a painkiller which is believed to be 200 times more effective than Morphine – and it has no bad side effects! Also, some of the alkaloids found in “frog poison” are showing promise for helping human heart and circulatory problems. If that isn’t a reason to protect these amazing little creatures and their rainforest environments, it’s hard to imagine what is!  

Like most of their fellow rainforest creatures, they are now threatened by habitat loss and climate change. Also, because of their amazing coloration, their numbers are being depleted by the illegal pet trade. The Poison Frogs are definitely not poison if they’re not eating those toxic creatures on the rainforest floor, so amphibian enthusiasts love to collect them.

But instead of seeking out your own “living jewel” as a pet, how about making a trip to the Conservation Learning Center at the Reid Park Zoo? The Poison Frogs there thrive on a steady diet of insects and fruit flies, so they aren’t a bit poisonous, but they’re fascinating and mesmerizing to watch.    

Just inside the CLC entrance, you’ll find a terrarium with lush rainforest foliage, lots of water and humidity, and amazing spots of color: Blessed Poison Frogs (blue and orange), Golden Poison Frogs (bright yellow:  these are the most poisonous variety in the wild), Zimmerman’s Poison Frogs (bright green with large black spots), and Bumblebee Poison Frogs (distinctive yellow and black coloration). These fellows feel like they’re hiding – but you can see them if you take a moment. However, be ready to share the view with many enthralled children who must “visit the frogs” every time they come to the Zoo. These tiny but important contributors to biodiversity and now medicine may someday move to the Reptile House in the Reid Park Zoo expansion, but their devoted fans will surely follow them there!

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  1. I was volunteering at the Zoo yesterday and got to see the new baby dart frog. So ;amazing. This is why supporting the Zoo Expansion is so important. We will be able to support and protect many species when Pathways to Asia opens up.

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