All About the Poison Dart Frog: The Arrow Frog

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

NamePoison Dart FrogDietInsectivorous
Scientific nameDendrobatidaeWeight1 ounce (28 grams)
Pronunciationpoy-zuhn daart fraagLength1.3 to 6.4 centimeters (0.5 to 2.5 inches)
ClassificationAmphibia, Anura, & DendrobatoideaLocationCentral and South America

The Poison Dart Frog

dart frog
The colorful poison dart frog | kikkerdirk via Getty Images

Bright coloration in most animal species is often a sign of high toxicity.

This is a phenomenon known as aposematism or warning coloration. 

One animal that demonstrates this perfectly is the poison dart frog, 

The poison dart frog is the common name of a group of frogs belonging to the family Dendrobatidae. 

They’re native to tropical Central and South America.

These small frogs are known for their bright coloration and high toxicity. 

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Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

In fact, this common name is due to the fact that Native American tribes used to collect toxic secretions from these frogs to make poisoned blow darts.

Some species of poison dart frogs have enough poison to kill up to 10 men or 20,000 mice.

Unfortunately, human activities currently threaten most poison dart frog species, and their habitats are rapidly declining. 

Consequently, it is crucial to learn more about them to better understand how they live and actively protect these fascinating frog species. 

In this article, we’ll explore various facts about the different species of poison dart frogs. 

Taxonomy and Classification

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The name poison dart frog refers to several species of frog within the family Dendrobatidae.

This is a diverse group of amphibians found in various locations across Central and South America.

So far, about 170 species of poison dart frogs have been identified and classified into three subfamilies and 20 genera. 

They belong to the superfamily Dendrobatoidea, along with another family of poisonous frogs known as the cryptic forest frogs (family Aromobatidae). 

Frogs (order Anura) are a group of tailless amphibians whose evolution dates back to the early Triassic. 

Several members of this order are known for their toxicity. 

Interestingly, most of them, including the poison dart frogs, are not inherently toxic. 

Their toxicity is a trait that was acquired from their diet of toxic insects such as ants and mites. 

Poison dart frogs that eat other prey apart from toxic insects tend to be less harmful than those that feed exclusively on poisonous insects. 

Poison dart frogs are also called poison arrow frogs or dendrobatids. 

Physical Characteristics

dart frog
This poison dart frog looks like a strawberry, doesn’t it? | Marek Stefunko via Getty Images

Poison dart frogs are generally small frogs. 

They have compact bodies and generally weigh just a few grams. 

Most species of poison dart frogs weigh about one ounce on average (26 grams). 

The body length of an adult dendrobatid ranges between 1.3 and 6.4 centimeters (0.5 to 2.5 inches). 

Like most frog species, poison dart frogs have smooth, moist skin.

They’re cryptic-colored, which means their color helps them blend in better with their environment. 

The different species of poison dart frogs come in a wide range of bright colors. 

Green, yellow, red, and blue colors are the most common, but many species have contrasting patterns of black and other bright colors. 

dart frog
Bright yellow poison dart frog | ad_foto via Getty Images

More than just blending in with their environment or showing off, the bright coloration of the poison dart frog is an important adaptation that warns predators that they’re toxic and should not be eaten. 

This is an example of aposematism or warning coloration. 

Even species of poison dart frogs with relatively low toxicity levels demonstrate this sort of coloration, which protects them from predators. 

The specific coloration patterns vary among species and even within a single species. 

Dendrobatids typically possess four well-developed limbs adapted for agile movement through the forest undergrowth.

Many species have specialized pads on their fingers and toes, known as digital pads. 

These pads help them climb and cling to the surface of leaves and tree branches.

Habitat and Distribution

Poison dart frogs are native to the humid tropical forests of Central and South America. 

They have an extensive range covering various American countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. 

Although they’re not native to Hawaii, poison dart frogs have been introduced to the island as invasive species. 

In the places where they’re found, these small frogs mainly inhabit moist, low-land forests and high-altitude shrublands. 

They’re typically found close to swamps and marshes formed by freshwater rivers and lakes. 

Some species of poison dart frogs also live in grasslands, plantations, and other moist savanna vegetation. 

Dendrobatids are mainly found on low-lying vegetation such as grasses, shrubs, and small trees. 

However, they may also live in tall trees up to 10 meters (33 feet) from the ground.

Behavior and Social Structure

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The poison dart frog makes this leaf look big | kikkerdirk via Getty Images

Poison dart frogs are small, agile amphibians. 

They’re known to navigate through the forest floor and dart from one vegetation to another using their extensible limbs. 

Dendrobatids are aggressive frogs. 

Even as tadpoles, they exhibit cannibalistic behaviors, feeding on eggs and other tadpoles.  

Poison dart frogs are primarily insectivorous, with a diet that consists mainly of ants, mites, termites, and other tiny arthropods.

Some species have specialized diets, focusing on specific types of prey, while others have a more generalized diet.

Most species of poison dart frogs are territorial. 

They defend their small territories aggressively. 

They may make their home around the base of a tree or on a particular rock crevice. 

Arrow frogs will display a wide range of territorial behavior, such as vocalizations and aggressive posturing, to deter intruders from getting too close. 

These frogs are generally not migratory. 

They stay around a relatively small home range within their chosen microhabitats.

dart frog
Yellow poison dart frog in its habitat | CHUNG-WEI HUANG via Getty Images

However, they may move around within their territories in search of food or suitable breeding sites.

While most amphibians are more active at night, poison dart frogs are diurnal. 

This means they’re more active in the daytime. 

Most poison dart frog species are solitary except during mating seasons. 

However, some species may form monogamous pairs for longer periods, where the male and female stay within a territory.

These pairs may cooperate in caring for their offspring, including guarding and hydrating the eggs.

Some species also form small groups that may include several males and females. 

This is particularly common during mating seasons. 

However, individual mating pairs will still maintain distinct territories even within these groups. 

Social behavior is even more pronounced in certain species, such as the strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio). 

These species form large aggregations, especially during the breeding season.

These aggregations may include several males and females, and in such cases, competition for mates can be pretty intense. 

Diet and Feeding

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Keeping an eye out for some food | Marek Stefunko via Getty Images

Poison dart frogs are aggressive predators that prey mainly on insects and Invertebrates.

Their typical prey includes ants, mites, termites, beetles, flies, and small arthropods.

Some species are highly specialized, which means they feed on a specific type of prey, such as ants. 

Poison dart frogs that feed on toxic prey exclusively like this tend to be more poisonous. 

These frogs are active and agile predators. 

They move around in search of food and have a keen eyesight that helps them spot potential prey. 

dart frog
Better view for potential prey | Alatom via Getty Images

Poison dart frogs can move quickly and have an extensible tongue, which helps capture insects with great precision. 

When they spot prey, these frogs can stick out their stick tongue, which adheres to the insect’s body, and retract it rapidly into their mouths. 

Due to their cryptic coloration, many species of poison dart frogs can leverage camouflage and ambush as an effective strategy for catching prey. 

They remain motionless on tree trunks or leave surfaces while their cryptic coloration blends in with their surroundings. 

This makes it easier to catch unsuspecting prey that come within striking distance of their long tongue. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

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A Red-backed poison frog is seen with a tadpole on its back. | webguzs via Getty Images

Poison dart frogs engage in elaborate courtship rituals to attract potential mates. 

They also have interesting post-mating behavior. 

However, their exact behavior tends to vary from one species to the other. 

They produce a series of chirps and thrills to attract mates, which may vary slightly for different species. 

Experts also think their vibrant coloration is an adaptation for attracting females.

Poison dart frogs are known to be quite aggressive and may also demonstrate this aggressive behavior while mating. 

Unlike other animal species where males tend to compete for females, the opposite is usually the case for most species of poison dart frogs. 

In many species, females typically outnumber males, meaning females have to compete for the limited number of males available. 

Females may even destroy the eggs of other females or scare the males from mating with other females. 

dart frog
A clutch of golden poison frog eggs in a bromeliad | Thorsten Spoerlein via Getty Images

Fertilization is external. 

The female poison dart frog typically lays eggs in moist, hidden locations, such as leaf litter, hollow plants, or tree cavities.

Most species of poison dart frogs exhibit extensive parental care. 

After hatching, the parent of poison dart frog species in the Oophaga and Ranitomeya genera tend to carry the egg into the tree canopy. 

The tadpoles are deposited in pools of water accumulated in the leaves of plants such as the bromeliads. 

The tadpole feeds on invertebrates that fall into this makeshift nursery, other tadpoles, and eggs deposited in the water intentionally by the parent. 

Other species leave their young on the forest floor, hidden beneath leaf litter. 

In some species, the male plays a role in guarding the eggs and tadpoles and keeping them hydrated, while in some, only the female does this. 

Ecological Role and Interactions

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Ready for some prey | kool99 via Getty Images

As a predator, poison dart frogs prey on various small invertebrates. 

Their diet includes smaller prey, such as ants and mites, as well as bigger ones, like the orthopteroids (grasshoppers and crickets), butterfly larvae, and spiders.

The feeding activities of predators like the poison dart frogs tend to keep the populations of these invertebrates (which are typically pests) in check.

It is worth noting that poison dart frogs are poisonous but not venomous. 

This means they don’t kill prey by releasing venom like snakes and other venomous animals do. 

dart frog
Green and Black Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates auratus) seen in the wild | Robert_Ford via Getty Images

However, they’re poisonous, which means they can be toxic to animals that consume or attempt to consume them, such as snakes, birds, and larger amphibians. 

When attacked by a predator, frogs in the dendrobatid family release chemical toxins that can cause symptoms like convulsions, salivation, muscle contractions, paralysis, and death.

Different species of poison dart frogs produce different types of toxins stored in glands in their skin. 

They’re typically in the form of alkaloid toxins like allopumiliotoxin, epibatidine, batrachotoxin, histrionicotoxin, and pumiliotoxin.

Due to this chemical defense, poison dart frogs can live actively alongside their potential predators without harm. 

The most toxic species in this family is Phyllobates terribilis.

Conservation Status and Threats

dart frog
Two poison dart frogs | stevegeer via Getty Images

The conservation status of poison dart frogs varies among the different species in the family.

However, many of them currently face significant threats. 

For instance, while some species, such as Ameerega braccata, are classified as Least Concern, others, like the Rana venenosa and Phyllobates bicolor, are considered endangered. 

Some species, like the Ameerega pongoesis and Oophaga granulifera, are also classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of endangered animals. 

Habitat loss due to land conversion and deforestation is the biggest threat to the species of poison dart frogs currently classified as vulnerable or at risk of extinction.

These activities fragment poison dart frog populations, reduce their genetic diversity and make them more vulnerable to threats and diseases. 

Pollution from agriculture, mining, and human settlements can also contaminate these frogs’ water sources and nesting grounds, harming their aquatic stages, such as the tadpoles.

dart frog
Shimmering vibrant colours of the poison dart frog | pilesasmiles via Getty Images

Chytridiomycosis is one of the major diseases that affect poison dart frogs. 

This disease is caused by the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) and mainly affects frogs in the Colostethus and Dendrobates genera. 

The establishment of protected areas and reserves in the native ranges of poison dart frogs is one of the most important conservation measures that ensure the survival of this family of frogs. 

These protected areas help safeguard the typical habitat of these frogs from deforestation and other threats.

Poison dart frogs can also be bred in captivity, but captive species tend to produce less venom than species that grow naturally in the wild. 

This makes it challenging to reintroduce captive species to the wild. 

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

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Close-up of the frog’s skin | V2 viia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of the primary adaptations of the poison dart frog is their toxic skin secretion. 

These toxins are obtained from the ants, mites, and other small arthropods that these frogs consume and serve as a powerful defense mechanism against predators.

Poison dart frogs are brightly colored. 

This serves as a warning signal to potential predators and keeps them from getting attacked. 

Although most species of poison dart frogs are brightly colored, some exhibit cryptic coloration. 

This allows them to blend into their surroundings, making them difficult to detect for prey and predators. 

Some tree frog species with very mild toxicity, such as the mimic poison frog (Ranitomeya imitator), tend to mimic the coloration of the more toxic species. 

This mimicry helps them avoid predation efficiently. 

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

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Blue Jeans Frog in a rain forest | nikpal via Getty Images

Poison dart frogs are popular among indigenous tribes in Central and South America.

Some native tribes, such as the Choco people of Colombia, use the toxic secretions of these frogs to poison blow darts for hunting. 

This practice is the source of the frogs’ common name — “poison dart frogs.”

Interestingly, only four out of the 170 species of poison dart frogs are used for this purpose. 

All four species belong to the genus Phyllobates

They’re relatively larger than other species and have higher toxicity levels. 

Poison dart frogs are featured as symbols of protection in certain native American folklore and myths. 

Today, poison dart frogs are pretty famous among collectors and hobbyists who keep them in aquariums and tanks at home due to their striking colors and patterns. 

Future Prospects and Research

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A frog stays cool in a forest of the Ecuadorian Amazon | mlharing via Getty Images

Poison dart frogs are famous subjects of scientific research seeking to understand the toxic skin secretions of these frogs. 

Various chemicals have been extracted from the skin of different species of these frogs for their potential medicinal value and are currently being studied. 

For instance, the toxin from Epipedobates tricolor is currently being researched for its potential use as a painkiller. 

Current studies suggest that this chemical (known as epibatidine) may be up to 200 times more potent than morphine. 

Research is still being carried out to determine the safe therapeutic dose of this toxin and prevent some of its side effects. 

Chemicals extracted from the dendrobatids are also being studied for their potential use as muscle relaxants, heart stimulants or appetite suppressants.

With more research, we may see more widespread use of these chemicals for various applications in the future.


Poison dart frogs are a group of relatively small amphibians found naturally in the forests of Central and South America. 

They are famous for their colorful bodies, an apparent sign of toxicity. 

Poison dart frogs are among the most poisonous amphibians in the world.

Their poison, stored in glands on their skin, is released when predators attack them. 

Although many species of poison dart frogs still have a stable population in the wild, some species are currently being threatened by habitat loss due to human activities. 

Considering the ecological significance of these frogs and their potential uses for medicine and other fields of science, poison dart frogs are worth protecting. 

We should invest more in learning more about them and contribute to conservation efforts to protect their habitat. 


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