Common Names: Poison dart frogs, dart frogs, poison arrow frogs, poison frogs
Size: Most are fairly small frogs that grow to somewhere around 1.0 inch (2.5 cm) long. A number of species are larger, up to 2.0 inches (5.0 cm) or more in length, while many others are tiny. The genus Ranitomeya and similar-sized poison frogs are often called “thumbnails” by private breeders because adults are barely as big as a fingernail.
Appearance: Popular species are brightly colored in attractive and often contrasting patterns. Red, orange, yellow, green, and even blue frogs exist, usually with black, tan, or brown interspersed between. Other poison dart frogs are less colorful, though these species may have bright flashmarks even if they are predominately brown or tan.
Many species occur in different color morphs. These are naturally occurring rather than selectively bred, and sometimes are even known by the locality where the particular color morph occurs in nature, for example Dendrobates auratus ‘El Cope’ or Oophaga pumilio ‘Bastimentos’. Unlike many reptiles, selectively breeding poison dart frogs to create new morphs is frowned upon and somewhat of a taboo in the hobby so it is best to keep different varieties of the same species separate to avoid cross breeding.
Distribution, Habitat and Behavior: Central and South America, as far north as Nicaragua and south into the Andes and Amazon Basin.
Poison dart frogs are a diverse group of amphibians that live in a variety of habitats, from pristine rainforest to disturbed agricultural land. Some species are associated with streams while others live entirely above ground in and around epiphytic plants such as bromeliads, inside of which they breed. Many poison dart frogs exhibit various types of parental care for their young, such as carrying tadpoles to a water source or even feeding their larval offspring infertile eggs while developing.
Their bright coloration warns predators of their poisonous skin secretions, which they sequester from their diet in nature. Frogs fed crickets, fruit flies, and other commonly cultured live foods in captivity are no longer poisonous. One species — Phyllobates terribilis — is traditionally used by a group of indigenous people in Colombia, whereby blow darts are coated in the frog’s poisonous secretions and used for hunting. Of the more than 250 species of poison dart frog, only this species and two others like it are potentially life-threatening to people in nature.
Availability: Poison dart frogs are regularly available from a variety of sources though are not usually found for sale at the average retail pet store. Always buy captive-bred frogs and preferably directly from the breeder. To find a reliable breeder, check with your local herpetological society. Many regional poison dart frog hobbyist organizations also exist and joining one is a great way to not only find quality frogs but also share experiences and gain new ideas.
Of the 170 species in the family Dendrobatidae, less than two dozen are commonly found for sale. Some are more challenging to keep than others. Good choices for a first time poison dart frog include Dendrobates auratus, D. leucomelas, D. tinctorius, Epipedobates anthonyi, Phyllobates bicolor, P. terribilis, or P. vittatus. Most Ranitomeya species and the genus Oophaga are best left to experienced keepers.
Avoid housing different species or color morphs together and do not purchase frogs younger than eight weeks of age. Older frogs that are 3-4 months out of the water are best to purchase. Though poison dart frogs have a reputation for being somewhat more delicate or difficult to keep than other commonly available amphibians, often new keepers fail because they have purchased especially young frogs from unscrupulous sources. Starting with large juvenile or sub-adult frogs from a quality source is the best way to avoid problems.
Housing: Poison dart frogs are usually kept in tropical terrariums. These can be as simple as 10 gallon aquarium with soil or moist sphagnum moss, a few clippings of pothos (Scindapus aureus), and a small water dish, though many people find the process of creating more elaborate setups to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of keeping poison dart frogs. A standard 20 gallon aquarium that measures 24 inches long by 12 inches wide by 16 inches high (61 cm by 30 cm by 40 cm) is large enough for two to six adult frogs, depending on species and the way it is set up.
Frogs less than five or six months of age should be raised in small, simple setups before being moved to more permanent larger terrariums. A standard 10 gallon aquarium that measures 20 inches long by 10 inches wide by 12 inches high (50 cm by 25 cm by 30 cm) is large enough to raise six or more young frogs until they are four or five months old, at which point the frogs can be moved to a larger enclosure. This ‘grow-out tank’ should be kept simple, with a substrate of moist sphagnum moss, a few hide spots (cork bark curls, leaf litter, plant clippings, etc.) and a shallow water dish or water area.
Poison dart frogs are territorial animals and as adults often fight over important breeding spots or feeding areas. When groups of frogs are housed together in one terrarium, it’s important that there is plenty of extra room, visual barriers, and hide spots. Most dart frogs only become territorial once they reach sexual maturity, so juvenile frogs can be raised together until they are large enough to be paired off and placed in separate enclosures. Some especially territorial species, such as those in the genus Oophaga as well as the popular Dendrobates tinctorius, are often best housed in male-female pairs unless provided with an especially large enclosure.
Temperature and Humidity: Most commonly available species do best when kept between 74°F (23°C) and 82°F (28°C) during the day, with a drop down to 65-70°F (18-21°C) at night. Some species from high altitudes need to be kept at lower temperatures. During cool months of the year, a reptile heat pad can be attached to the back or sides of the terrarium to maintain the proper temperature. If a false-bottom is used, a submersible aquarium heater can be placed below in the water to heat the terrarium. Heat lamps do not work well for heating terrariums that house dart frogs because they tend to dry out the enclosure. Use an accurate thermometer to monitor the temperature; don’t guess.
The humidity in the terrarium should be kept high, between 70% and 100% most of the time. To accomplish this, restrict ventilation (some keepers who live in particularly dry areas use completely glass covers and provide almost no ventilation) and the terrarium should be misted with water frequently, sometimes once or twice a day. When the humidity is kept at a low level or too much ventilation is offered, dart frogs tend to be shy and stay hidden from view in the damp and moist areas of the terrarium in order to conserve moisture. If your frogs are not displaying well, dry increasing the humidity level.
Water: Provide an area within the terrarium where water is available to dart frogs. Sometimes plants, such as bromeliads, can serve this purpose, or small natural objects such as Brazilian nut pods or ‘jungle pods’. Shorelines or water features can be incorporated into terrariums as well. Dart frogs are not aquatic amphibians, though having water available ensures there is an area for frogs to hydrate should conditions become too dry. More important than a permanent water source (which some keepers do not even provide) is spraying the terrarium with water each day, allowing water to temporarily build up on plants and objects inside.
Diet: Poison dart frogs are small amphibians that eat small food. Finding a constant source of tiny live insects is the most difficult part of their care. There are many places you can mail order small feeder insects from or, if you have a larger collection of dart frogs, you might want to culture them yourself.
Usually people who keep poison dart frogs also spend their time culturing flightless fruit flies. This is a good skill to practice before acquiring frogs. There are two common species of flightless fruit flies found for sale: Drosophila melanogaster and D. hydei. The melanogaster are smaller and easy to culture. The hydei are somewhat larger and can be a little finicky. Other species and varieties of fruit fly are also available and it is usually advisable to culture at least two types since if cultures of one crash there is still a backup food source available.
In addition to fruit flies, crickets should be fed to poison dart frogs regularly. Crickets are typically sold in six sizes (pin-head, 1/8 inch, 1/4 inch, ½ inch, 3/4 inch and 1 inch) from feeder insect companies, but only the two smallest sizes are small enough for most poison dart frogs to eat. Few pet stores carry crickets this small, so it is best to order them from feeder insect companies.
Other food items that should be mixed in to the diet of poison dart frogs include springtails (Collembolans), termites, rice flower beetle larvae, aphids, small fly larvae, and isopods. Crickets and fruit flies can form the bulk of the diet, with other food items rotated in for variety every week or two.
The number of food items that are fed per dart frog each day depends on the size of the insect and the size of the frog. A large Dendrobates tinctorius can easily eat 40-50 pinhead sized crickets in one sitting, but if larger crickets are used smaller quantities can be offered. Normally, between 15 and 40 insects can be fed per adult frog every other day, although this amount will vary quite a bit depending on the size of the frog and the size of the feeder insect. Observe frogs after feeding, and if they eat everything in 5-10 minutes feed more. Juvenile frogs need to be fed in smaller quantities daily, as much as they will eat. It is hard to overfeed growing juveniles and young froglets. Use high quality amphibian and reptile vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure nutritional requirements are met.