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Conservation Status:  Endangered

Land & AquaticGolden Poison Dart Frog

Phyllobates terribilis Amphibians

Aquarium of the Pacific - Online Learning Center - Species Print Sheet

Golden Poison Dart Frog
Photo taken at the Aquarium's exhibit of dart frogs. | © A. Reitsma, Aquarium of the Pacific
Golden Poison Dart Frog
Photo taken at the Aquarium's exhibit of dart frogs. | © A. Reitsma, Aquarium of the Pacific

Species Overview

Although all poison dart frogs are venomous, only three have poison that is lethal to humans. The golden poison frog is one of these and the most deadly. Its poison is 20 times more toxic than that of other dart frogs. It is reported that an amount of poison equal to 2-3 grains of table salt is enough to cause the death of a human. Perhaps, that is the reason their other common name is terrible frog.

Species In-Depth | Print full entry

At the Aquarium

The Aquarium’s habitat for these frogs is in the Tropical Pacific Gallery. Our golden poison frogs were captive-bred.

Geographic Distribution

Small area of southwest coastal Colombia, South America. Scientists have been unable to determine the exact true geographic range of the golden poison frogs because of the risks of surveying land owned by the Colombian drug cartels.

Habitat

They live at elevations of 100 to 200 m (328-656 ft) above sea level in lowland rain forest with steep rocky terrain and where the forest is broken by a stream, and in an area that receives about 5 m (16 ft) of rainfall annually. They prefer a temperature of about 26o C (80o F) and a relative humidity of 80-90 percent.

Physical Characteristics

Golden poison frogs have four long slender legs that end in four toes that are not webbed. The toes have tiny disks called toe tips. The tips are larger in males than in females. A unique characteristic that distinguishes them from other poison dart frogs is a bony teeth-like plate in the upper jaw. Depending on the microgeographic region the frogs live in, their coloration, usually a uniform metallic golden yellow, can also be deep orange or a metallic silver-green sometimes described as mint green. Some adults have black markings on the snout and toes. Juveniles are black with a pair of gold stripes along the sides of the back and underbody.

Size

These frogs are 1.3-5.1 cm (0.5-2 in) long. Females are larger than males.

Diet and Feeding

Golden poison adult frogs feed during the day primarily on insects they encounter on the rain forest floor. They eat flies, ants, beetles, spiders, mites, caterpillars, and maggots. Tadpoles eat whatever is available such as algae and microscopic plants, carrion, and even smaller tadpoles.

Reproduction

Sexual maturity of these frogs is based more on body size than age. Males are usually 3.7 cm (1.5 in) in length and females 4.0 cm (1.6 in), lengths usually reached when the frogs are about 18 months old. Breeding occurs throughout the rainy season. The male sits on a leaf and calls a female with two trilling or buzzing calls, one lasting 6-7 seconds and the other 2-3 seconds. The attracted female and the male move to a moist area such as in a leaf litter or under rocks where she lays 8-28 gelatinous encased eggs that the male fertilizes as she lays them. The male visits the eggs to keep them moist but because of the wet environment, he does not need to moisten the eggs very often. The eggs that are 0.8-1.1 cm (0.3-0.4 in) long are ready to hatch in about two weeks. At that time the male uses his hind legs to free the grey-brown tadpoles from the egg mass.

The fish-shaped tadpoles crawl onto the male’s back and he carries them to a larger area of water such as ground water or water trapped in the center of bromeliad plants or in a low tree hole.. In about 10 to 14 weeks they metamorphose into miniature adults called froglets that are 1.5-2.0 cm (0.6-0.8 in) in length snout to vent .

Behavior

These frogs spend most of their time on the lowland floor of the rain forest, rarely climbing trees. Both sexes fight in aggressive wrestling matches, females over males and males over territories

Adaptation

The poison these frogs extrude is produced by poison glands in their skin. If the frog is touched, the poison enters through openings in the skin such as cuts or abrasions. If a frog is eaten, the poison is ingested. As these poisonous frogs evolved, the sodium channel regulatory site in their nerves and muscle cells became altered so as to make them immune to their own poison.

Longevity

Life span in the wild is believed to be 6 to 10 years.

Conservation

This frog is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Amazing Facts

The Embera Choco indigenous people of western Colombia rub their homemade blow darts against the the back of a golden dart frog to coat the darts with poison. The frog is impaled at the end of a stick and then heated over a fire. The poison on the coated dart can last for a year. It is believed that the poisoned darts were used as weapons in past warfare.

A small frog-eating snake, Leimadophis epinephelus, that inhabits the same areas as the golden poison frog actively hunts and eats it. While the snake seems able to eat juvenile frogs with no ill effects, it is affected to some extent by the stronger poison from adult frogs. It is believed that the snakes detoxify the frog’s poison with a substance contained in the saliva.