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Poison Dart Frogs (Dendrobatidae)

Dendrobates leucomelas

Introduction: Poison dart frogs are small, brightly colored frogs from Central and South America. There are nearly 250 species that come in colors ranging from dark purple-blue, to bright neon yellow, to tan and black, and any combination of colors in between. The bright colors display by some species warn potential predators of their poisonous nature. Fortunately, poison dart frogs born in captivity are not poisonous. All species are diurnal, and because they are diurnal and brightly colored they are becoming increasingly popular in the reptile and amphibian hobby. Although there are many different species kept in captivity, only a handful are frequently found for sale. This care sheet can be applied to most commonly available Dendrobates and Phyllobates species, though I recommend researching the particular species you are interested in keeping to learn about their particular needs in captivity.

Poison dart frogs have a reputation for being difficult to keep, and in the past this was more true. Over the last twenty years, new captive care and breeding strategies have been developed that have helped establish dart frogs in herpetoculture. There is now a large selection of captive-bred species available from breeders, and many previously hard-to-find terrarium and vivarium products are now available through dealers on the Internet and some specialty pet stores. Poison dart frogs are still sensitive animals that do not tolerate mistakes well, but finding healthy frogs and purchasing the required supplies to keep them is now easier than ever. Careful planning and lots of research are the keys to succeeding with poison dart frogs.

Of the many species available, those that are large, bold, and affordable are generally best to start with. The following species have proven to be hardy frog, and are a good choice for someone looking to get involved with dart frogs for the first time: Dendrobates auratus, D. leucomelas, D. tinctorius , Phyllobates bicolor, P. terribilis, and P. vittatus . Many species occur naturally in different colors that represent isolated populations of the same species of frog. Usually the color type or morph of frog is indicated in a similar way to cultivars of different plant species, with the name of the color morph being placed after the scientific name, such as Dendrobates tinctorius ‘Powder Blue’ or Phyllobates terribilis ‘Mint’. Avoid housing different species or color morphs together. Do not purchase frogs younger than eight weeks of age, preferably only buying frogs that are at least twelve weeks old.

    Dendrobates tinctorius 'Powder Blue'    Dendrobates auratus 'Green and Bronze'     Dendrobates leucomelas

Three good species for beginners: Dendrobates tinctorius, D. auratus, D.leucomelas

Cage: Poison dart frogs need a spacious tropical terrarium. It can be as simple as a 10 gallon aquarium with soil, a few clippings of pothos and a water dish, or as complex as a 100 gallon custom-made enclosure with running water, timed lighting and many different kinds of exotic tropical plants. Generally, it's best to start with an aquarium in the 15 to 30 gallon range for your first dart frog terrarium. 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 usually large enough for two to four adult frogs.

Juvenile frogs (under six months of age) should be raised in small, simple terrariums so that they can find food easily. 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 five or six young frogs. The cage should be kept simple, with a substrate of either moist paper towels, sphagnum moss, or a soil mixture, a few hide spots (cork bark curls, leaf litter, plant clippings, etc.), and a very shallow water dish. If paper towels are used as a substrate, they should be changed regularly.

Poison dart frogs are territorial animals and often fight over important breeding spots or feeding areas. Some species, such D. tinctorius, often do best when housed in male-female pairs rather than groups. If 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.

See Tropical Terrariums for more information about dart frog housing

Temperature and Humidity: Different species of poison dart frogs have different temperature requirements. 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 around 70°F (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 cage.

Poison dart frogs need to be kept in an environment where the humidity level is very high. Most species do best when the humidity level in their terrarium is kept between 70% and 100%. To accomplish this, ventilation should be restricted (some keepers do not provide any 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, most species tend to be shy and stay hidden from view in the damp and moist areas of the terrarium in order to conserve moisture.

Food: Poison dart frogs are small amphibians that eat tiny 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.

Flightless ruit flies are small and extremely easy to culture. You can choose to culture fruit flies yourself (easy and cheap) or buy a few cultures every month from companies like ED's Fly Meat. 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 require a little more effort to culture.

Crickets are an easy to come by food item for poison dart frogs. 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 can be used include springtails, termites, rice flower beetles, aphids, small fly larvae, pillbugs, and small wild-caught insects or “field plankton”. Only collect insects from places that are free of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals that could be harmful to amphibians.

The number of food items that are fed per frog each day depends on the size of the insect and the size of the frog. A large D. tinctorius can easily eat 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. Young frogs do best when offered food once a day in smaller quantities. Use high quality reptile vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure nutritional requirements are met.

Last updated 03.22.08

Online Resources
Baby Dart Frog Care Sheet
Poison Dart Frog Care by Richard Revis
The Chocohut
Dendroboard - Poison Dart Frog Forum
Doyle's Dart Den
Frognet - Dart Frog Mailing List
Tamamizu Frogroom
Tropical Experience
Wild Sky - Dart Frog Species
Understory Enterprises