These days, "poison frog" is a bit of a misnomer.
Have you noticed the increasing frequency with which poison frogs of the family Dendrobatidae have been turning up at reptile shows in recent years? It’s encouraging to see more of these fascinating, not to mention beautiful, little frogs in the marketplace, and it’s a sign of the successful inroads herpetoculture and captive-breeding efforts can bring about. It’s not that long ago, in the grand scheme of the reptilekeeping hobby, that it was a rare treat to come upon these frogs. Now it’s just a treat. Commonly encountered types may include the blue-and-black Dendrobates azureus, red D. pumilio, green-and-black D. auratus and yellow-and-black D. leucomelas.
Let’s address the term “poison.” I first knew these frogs as poison-arrow frogs, and for that, as well as the moniker “poison-dart frog,” they get the Name That Says It All Award. The frogs were originally branded with these names because indigenous tribes in the frogs’ natural range of Central and South American rain forests used toxins secreted in the skin of some species to tip their blow darts (not arrows). Not all poison frogs secrete poison; only a few species do. Phyllobates terribilis, as may be evident by its Latin species name, is the most highly toxic. Tribal hunters can merely rub a blow dart on this frog’s back in order to get a sufficient dose to bring down their quarry. The color of the frogs indicates their toxicity. In nature, bright coloration on an animal often means one of two things: “Back off, I’m dangerous” or “Come closer, let’s mate.” In the case of dendrobatid frogs, it’s the former (as an example of the latter, think of any male bird that displays brightly colored plumage to attract a female…can you say “peacock”?).
Poison frogs come by their toxicity via their natural diet, which includes ants and other insects. This means that captive-produced specimens, because they are not supplied with the same prey items they would eat in the wild, lose their toxicity. People who keep captive-bred frogs, therefore, don’t really need to be alarmed about poison frog toxins, though all herpkeepers should practice common-sense husbandry and cleanliness, such as being sure to wash hands after working in enclosures or handling animals.
Speaking of handling, you really shouldn’t handle poison frogs anyway. They very much fall into the “display animal only” category. They are small, and they are delicate. Set them up in an attractive naturalistic vivarium for a beautiful showpiece, ensure their captive requirements are being met, and avoid handling them.
The preference in the frog hobby these days is to refer to dendrobatids as dart frogs, not poison frogs. We’re now adopting this naming convention in REPTILES and Reptiles USA. As mentioned, captive-bred specimens of these frogs, which make up the bulk of those for sale these days, are not poisonous, so calling them poison frogs is inaccurate. Another reason to avoid using the word “poison,” and an important reason these days, when it seems every week brings a new attempt to curtail the hobby of keeping reptiles and amphibians, the term “poison” does not exactly leave a positive impression on people. Therefore, “dart frog” is the preferred common name nowadays.
Keeping dart frogs doesn’t need to be complicated. Most of the more commonly kept species, including those mentioned at the beginning of this blog, are fairly hardy. Like all amphibians, their skin is permeable, and therefore they are especially susceptible to disease that can result from unclean enclosures. So if you want to keep these guys, keep their enclosures clean. Properly set-up naturalistic enclosures can often be self-sustaining, but you will still need to spot clean them, provide clean water, etc. These frogs could easily become gravely ill if they are forced to endure less-than-stellar environmental conditions. Otherwise, a standard rain forest-type of setup works very well for them. Because they are small, you don’t have to provide them with a huge enclosure: a standard 10-gallon aquarium setup could accommodate a pair or three frogs. If you want to keep a larger number of frogs in a larger enclosure, keep in mind that adult dart frogs can be territorial. Don’t overcrowd them, especially if you have more than one male in a setup. Provide visual barriers and enough space for frogs to stake out their territories. Décor can be plants such at Pothos and other species such as bromeliads, bark pieces, branches, etc. Soil can be used for a substrate, but be sure it has good drainage, which can be achieved by placing a few inches of gravel/pebbles beneath the soil.
Hiding places, of course, must be provided for security. Dart frogs will take full advantage of hiding places. Though they made spend a fair amount of time hiding, one nice thing about them, in addition to their beauty, is that they are diurnal (active during the day). Most of the common dart frogs can be kept at temperatures ranging from the mid 70s to low 80s Fahrenheit. They need to be kept humid – they’re rain forest species, remember – so aim for about 90 percent humidity in their enclosures. Misting can help achieve this, but don’t mist so much that the enclosure is constantly drenched. They are frogs, yes, but they are terrestrial frogs, not aquatic frogs. A hygrometer and thermometer will help you maintain both proper temperatures and humidity levels. For lighting, full-spectrum lighting is recommended.
We’re talking small frogs here, so they naturally need small prey items. Fruits flies (Drosophila) are ideal, and pinhead crickets can work, too. Other insects in a similar size range to these can be offered as well. Never offer dart frogs prey items that are too large for them. Doing so could result in injury to the frogs. And offer live prey in small batches, too; don’t throw a whole lot of crawling insects in the enclosure at once.
If your taste for herps leans toward frogs you may want to consider giving some of the hardier dart frog species a whirl. I’ll tell you one thing, if ever there was a group of frogs that could get even the most hardcore snakekeeper thinking about making the leap to frogs (of course the pun is intended), I think the dart frogs are up to the challenge.