The Golden Dart frog: the most poisonous animal on earth

Written by on January 7, 2015 in Toxicity with 0 Comments
The deadly Golden Dart frog, Phyllobates terribilis. Photo: Brian Gratwicke

While its common name describes its beautiful color, the Golden Dart frog’s scientific name tells a different story – Phyllobates terribilis – terrible as just one small frog can produce enough poison to kill 10 grown men.  At little more than 3 inches (60mm) long this dart frog may look harmless but its skin toxin is 5,000 times more deadly than cyanide.  There is no know antidote and once it enters the body it quickly leads to paralysis and death.

For centuries European explores told stories of a bright yellow frog with large black eyes, which was used by native tribesman to tip their poison blow darts.   Spanish conquistadores named it rana de veneno, ‘poison frog’.  It was not until the mid-1970’s that researches found it living in the Columbia rainforest to the northwest of the country.    LD50 toxin analysis has revealed just how lethal its Batrachotoxin is, officially making it the most poisonous land animal on Earth.  Only Australia’s infamous Inland Taipan, Oxyuranus scutellatus, produces a substance as lethal but as this is inject through the snake’s bite it’s classified as venom, not poison.

The Golden Dart frog is one of just three dart frogs which are deadly to humans.  All live in the Columbian rainforest and belong to the order Phyollobates; Phyllobates terribilis, the Golden Dart frog; Phylobates bicolor; and Phylobates vitattus.    All 3 are used by indigenous tribesman to tip their blow darts, these being used to hunt a variety of animals from monkeys to jaguars.  It is therefore these 3 dart frogs out of the 170+ species found worldwide that gives this fascinating frog family its common name – the Poison Dart frogs.

Like other darts, the Golden dart frog produces its skin toxin in self-defense when feeling threatened or under attack from predators.  With most poison frogs this is not intended to kill its attacker but leave a foul taste or burning sensation in the mouth – their bright skin color acting as an initial warning deterrent.  In the case of Golden Dart frogs a snake developed immunity to low doses of their toxin and its thought this is why the adults adapted to produce such large quantities of poison.  Unfortunately younger, smaller frogs still fall victim to the snake.

Cholo tribesmen collect the skin toxin by first putting a captured frog under duress, often leading to its death.  The milky-white poison is carefully collected and the blow dart tips coated.  These are then dried and stored for up to 10 years, without losing potency.

Fascinatingly these frogs lose the ability to produce their poison once kept in captivity.  This is because wild dart frogs synthesize their alkaloid based skin toxins from alkaloids found in the rainforest invertebrates they eat. For this reason captive bred Golden Dart frogs never develop their infamous poison, making them a safe and popular choice for hobbyists.  Several color morphs are available within the hobby, including yellow, orange and mint, and they can even be kept with other species in a large, well planted community vivarium.


Photo credit:  Brian Gratwicke

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