What are Poison Dart Frogs?
(and what all the fascination is about...)
Although the hobby of keeping Poison Dart Frogs entered the United States over 3 decades ago, the successes of captive husbandry and breeding programs now maintain the majority of their demand by hobbyists. Through many years of acquired knowledge, it has elevated itself into it's very own hierarchy of herpetofauna and herpetoculture. Only as recently as the past 5-10 years, has the boom in interest skyrocketed. A somewhat parallel hobby to that of fish keeping, it began as a hobby held by sophisticated naturalists and established itself in Europe. Today, keeping dart frogs can even sometimes be looked upon as living art while many past references can be found characterizing these frogs as living gems of the rain forest.
So, why all the buzz over these frogs? Well, to begin, we should cover some basics. Technically speaking, a Poison Dart Frog is any species of frog belonging to the large family of Dendrobatidae. This family contains several Genera of small frogs including Dendrobates, Phyllobates, Epipedobates and a few others. They are a diverse group of animals that range in size from 3/4" of an inch long to nearly 3". They inhabit the tropical areas of Central and South America and occupy habitats from the leaf litter on the forest floor to high up in the canopy.
The name Poison Dart Frog is derived from the usage by the Choco Indians of Colombia of a couple species in the Genus Phyllobates to poison the darts used for hunting. Phyllobates terribilis is the most commonly utilized species for this purpose and has enough toxin in it's skin to kill several adult humans. Luckily, captive bred animals never develop any toxicity and even wild caught individuals will lose their toxicity after a time under captive conditions. The majority of Poison Dart Frogs posess toxins that would pose little harm to humans and serve more to protect the frogs from predation. Of course, being toxic is not all that important if your predator simply dies after eating you. It is only effective if you can somehow advertise to a potential predator that eating you would not be a good idea.
These little frogs take these warnings to quite a spectacular level. It is also one of the largest reasons why they are so popular as terrarium inhabitants. Each species uses bright colors and striking patterns of reds, yellows, blues and more to let any predator know that they are toxic and should not be eaten. The toxicity of these little guys also allows them to take advantage of a different niche that most other amphibians simply cannot - the daytime. The frogs do not have to worry about being seen to avoid predation so can actively hunt for insects, court and even breed during the daylight hours. This is another attribute that makes them so desireable in captivity as it is quite easy to observe their fascinating behavior and habits.
The frogs themselves are quite different from other types of amphibians with regard to breeding and social behaviors. Their strategy is based on the premise that investing more time and energy into fewer young is more effective than explosive breeding that will yield a small number of eventual survivors with less parental interaction. Poison Dart Frogs can have elaborate courtship rituals and most all display an impressive level of parental care. It is truly fascinating to be able to witness an entire generation of frog take place right inside your minature habitat.
The animals are also perfectly suited to an elaborately planted vivarium. Their movements do not disturb or damage any of the plantings and allow the keeper to grow rare and unusual plant species that can be just as spectacular as the frogs themselves. Beautiful orchids, flowering plants and tiny ferns are just a few examples of the richness that these enclosures can house. The habitats are a functional system where the plants utilize the waste from the frogs while providing the shelter the frogs need. This allows for very little maintenance of the vivarium other than occasionally trimming the plants and the daily feeding of the frogs. Misting the enclosure several times a week maintains a good humidity level. When compared to other species of amphibians, Posion Dart Frogs certainly can provide much more entertainment and fascination and can live for more than a decade when properly cared for.