Phyllobates terribilis

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Geographic Range

Phyllobates terribilis is found in the Amazonian rainforest along the Pacific coast of Colombia. Other members of the Family Dendrobatidae have been found in close proximity along the coast of South America into the southern part of Central America. Phyllobates terribilis population is concentrated along the upper Rio Saija drainage in the vicinity of Quebrada Guangui’ and at La Brea in Colombia. Geographically isolated populations exist along the east and west banks along this river, dividing the population. Overall P. terribilis has a limited range, but is abundant within that area. (Bolívar and Lötters, 2004; Maxson and Myers, 1985; Stewart, 2010)

Habitat

Golden poison frogs thrive in lowland Amazonian rainforests. This an extremely humid region that receives up to 5 m of rain per year and a minimum of 1.25 m. The region they inhabit is characterized by a hilly landscape, elevations varying from 100 to 200 m, and is covered by areas of wet gravel and small saplings and relatively little leafy debris. They are terrestrial animals that live on the forest floor, but they rely on freshwater to support their young. (Bolívar and Lötters, 2004; Stewart, 2010)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • temporary pools
  • Range elevation
    100 to 200 m
    328.08 to 656.17 ft

Physical Description

Golden poison frogs have a variety of bright vibrant colors that cover their entire bodies, from mint green to yellow to orange and sometimes white. Yellow or deep yellow, is the most common color seen, giving them their common name. Phyllobates terribilis is the most toxic species of frog. Unlike most other members of the Family Dendrobatidae, Phyllobates terribilis has uniform body coloration, rather than dark spots and stripes, as in their relatives Phyllobates aurotaenia , Phyllobates lugubris and Phyllobates vittatus. Adults are more brightly colored than young, which have the same primitive pattern of most other members of the family Dendrobatidae. They have dorsolateral stripes on dark bodies until they mature. By the time they reach adulthood, their coloration has changed to a single bright color. (Duellman and Trueb, 1994; Maxson and Myers, 1985; Stewart, 2010)

An easy way to identify these frogs is by the odd protrusion from their mouth. This gives the false illusion that these frogs have teeth. Instead, they have an extra bone plate in their jaw that projects outwards and gives the appearance of teeth. These frogs have three toes on each foot. Each outside toe is almost equal in length but the middle toe is longer than the other two. (Duellman and Trueb, 1994; Maxson and Myers, 1985; Stewart, 2010)

Bright skin coloration in P. terribilis is thought to be a warning to predators that they are poisonous. Their skin is saturated in an alkaloid poison that contains batrachotoxins. These toxins prevent nerves from transmitting nerve impulses and ultimately result in muscle paralysis. About 1900 micrograms of batrachotoxins can be found in these frogs. Only 2 to 200 micrograms is thought to be lethal to humans. (Duellman and Trueb, 1994; Maxson and Myers, 1985; Stewart, 2010)

Adult females are typically larger than males. The average body length reaches 47 mm but females can reach 50 to 55 mm. Compared to the 175 species of dendrobatids, P. terribilis does not have a wide range of sizes. Other species can be as small as a human fingernail. (Duellman and Trueb, 1994; Maxson and Myers, 1985; Stewart, 2010)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range length
    47 to 55 mm
    1.85 to 2.17 in

Development

Like most frogs, golden poison frogs go through complete metamorphosis. Eggs are laid in small clutches of less than 20 and carried on the backs of males to small pools of water, where they develop and metamorphose into froglets. (Myers, et al., 1978; Stewart, 2010)

Reproduction

Phyllobates terribilis is polygynandrous; both males and females have multiple mates. Courtship and egg laying have only been observed in captivity, with limited specimens. Each breeding involved two or more male frogs and one female. Males attract females by using a variety of high pitched calls. Mating could be described as a frantic frenzy where individuals move quickly around each other during egg laying. This is hard to observe because the movement is so fast and done under cover of vegetation. Specifics on mode of reproduction are unconfirmed but it is believed that there is some vent to vent contact between frogs during copulation. However, golden poison frog mating rituals have not been observed in their natural habitat. Golden poison frogs are thought to mate year round. (Myers, et al., 1978; Stewart, 2010)

Golden poison frog eggs have not been found in the wild. In captivity, clutches of eggs usually do not exceed 20. In captivity, once eggs are laid and fertilized in water (by captive carers) they hatch 11 to 12 days later, typically taking 2 to 4 days for all the eggs to be completely hatched. Not even 10 days after leaving the water, they begin to feed on Drosophila flies. (Myers, et al., 1978; Stewart, 2010)

  • Breeding interval
    Breeding intervals are unknown.
  • Breeding season
    Golden poison frogs seem to breed year round.
  • Range number of offspring
    8 to 18
  • Average number of offspring
    13-14
  • Range time to hatching
    11 to 12 days
  • Range time to independence
    55 to 60 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    12 to 18 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    13 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    12 to 18 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    13 months

In the wild, once the female lays the eggs, the male fertilizes them and attaches them to its back. Only three male frogs have been captured with clutches of eggs on their backs. It seems that this period of carrying tadpoles on their backs is brief. It is a method of getting the eggs from their laying and fertilization site to the water to hatch. After fertilization and transfer to a small area of water for development, there is no further parental care. (Myers, et al., 1978; Stewart, 2010)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male

Lifespan/Longevity

In the wild golden poison frogs are believed to live up to 5 years or more. Due to their high toxicity levels, these frogs have few predators, contributing to their long lifespan. Lifespan in the wild has not been confirmed because these frogs have only been observed in captivity, where they have lived up to 5 years old. (Myers, et al., 1978)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    5 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    5 (high) years

Behavior

Golden poison frogs are diurnal and strictly terrestrial. Both in captivity and when observed in the wild, golden poison frogs have not been seen climbing on any surfaces. They have only been observed sitting on the ground or sitting a few centimeters above the ground on a tree root or pieces of vegetation. Most species of dendrobatids are secretive and quick to hide, however the behavior in P. terribilis is quite different. It is thought to be because of their extremely toxic nature that they are not afraid of predation. These frogs are also not often found in dense aggregations. Captive golden poison frogs thrive in crowded conditions with little aggressive behavior. This differs from other closely related species which have been observed to be highly aggressive and territorial in nature. Most aggression takes place between the same sex, where calling, chasing and wrestling can occur.

These frogs in captivity exhibit strong learning ability. They are quick to associate the opening of the terrarium with feeding and swiftly snap at anything presenting movement. Even the slightest movement in front of the terrarium is enough to excite the frogs as they expect to be fed. (Myers, et al., 1978)

Home Range

The size of the home range for P. terribilis is unknown.

Communication and Perception

Golden poison frog males engage females in courtship by singing a long, melodious trill. This trill lasts 6 to 7 seconds followed by a 2 to 3 second version. The trill is usually a uniform train of notes uttered at a rate of 13 beats per second. The frequency for this tune is 1800Hz. This is a lower frequency when compared to related species of the family Dendrobatidae. They also communicate through gestures. A push up movement of the body represents dominance while the lowering of the head implies submission. A sign of excitement usually seen during hunting and courting includes the tapping of their long middle toe. (Duellman and Trueb, 1994; Stewart, 2010)

Food Habits

Golden poison frogs are insectivores and prey primarily on species of Brachymyrmex and Paratrechina ants. They also consume small invertebrates such as termites and beetles. Golden poison frogs use their long, sticky tongues to capture prey. They stalk and attack prey in one quick movement; this movement is so fast it's hard to see the mechanics of it with the naked eye. An adhesive tongue enables the prey to stick to its mouth to aid in capturing. Typically, they will not attack an insect bigger than a full grown cricket, approximately 1 inch. It has recently been discovered that feeding on a small Choresine beetle (Family Melyridae) may be the main source of toxicity for P. terribilis. (Duellman and Trueb, 1994; Stewart, 2010)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • terrestrial worms

Predation

Golden poison frogs are best known for their extremely potent poison. The toxins they produces are twenty times more powerful than any other poison dart frog toxin. Their brightly colored bodies warn predators of their extreme toxicity. This serves as the frog’s main anti-predator adaptation. The toxins produced are steroidal alkaloids batrachotoxin, homobatrachotoxin, and batrachotoxinin A. These compounds are extremely potent modulators of voltage-gated sodium channels. They keep the channels open and depolarize nerve and muscle cells irreversibly. This damaging action may lead to arrhythmias, fibrillation, and eventually cardiac failure. When accidentally transferred onto human facial skin, these toxins have been reported to cause a burning sensation lasting several hours.

There is only one known predator of P. terribilis: Liophis epinephelus. This is a small snake that feeds on young frogs. The snake is immune to the toxins produced by golden poison frogs but since it is so small, it can only feed on juvenile frogs. (Daly, et al., 1980; Myers, et al., 1978; Stewart, 2010)

Ecosystem Roles

Golden poison frogs have only one natural predator. They usually sit out in the open. When approached they do not try to hide, but rather further their distance from the thing that approaches it. They are generalist feeders, preying on all types of fruit flies, crickets, beetles, and termites. Recent research shows that these frogs may obtain some of their poison by eating a beetle that belongs to the family, Melyridae. (Gratwicke, 2011; Myers, et al., 1978)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Golden poison frogs are the most highly toxic of all frogs. Colombian tribes, such as the Embre and Choco Indians, use poison secreted from the frogs’ skin to poison their blowgun darts. After heating darts over a fire, they are wiped over the frogs’ backs. Heat causes the back of the frog to moisten with poison which makes it easily accessible. Poisoned darts can stay lethal for up to two years. The toxin enables these tribes to catch small animals for food. These frogs are also being captured, bred, and sold as pets. This is possible because of their decrease in toxicity once held in captivity for a certain period of time. Medical research is also being done to see if these poisons can be developed into muscle relaxants, anesthetics, and heart stimulants. It is thought that it could even become a better anesthetic than morphine. (Gratwicke, 2011; Stewart, 2010)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Golden poison frogs do not display aggressive behavior towards humans. However, contact with their skin can prove fatal because of their extreme toxicity. This is not true of captive individuals, which tend to lose their toxicity in the absence of the wild prey that are the source of that toxin. (Myers, et al., 1978; Stewart, 2010)

Conservation Status

Golden poison frog populations have been decreasing due to deforestation for agricultural purposes. They can be found in fewer than five areas. This species is listed as endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (Bolívar and Lötters, 2004)

Contributors

Mariela C. Alvarez (author), Radford University, Mary Wiley (author), Radford University, Christine Small (editor), Radford University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

aposematic

having coloration that serves a protective function for the animal, usually used to refer to animals with colors that warn predators of their toxicity. For example: animals with bright red or yellow coloration are often toxic or distasteful.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
drug

a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease

ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

metamorphosis

A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

poisonous

an animal which has a substance capable of killing, injuring, or impairing other animals through its chemical action (for example, the skin of poison dart frogs).

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

rainforest

rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

saltatorial

specialized for leaping or bounding locomotion; jumps or hops.

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

visual

uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

References

Bartlett, R. 2003. Poison Dart Frogs. Hauppauge, New Jersey: Barron's Educational Series,Inc.

Bolívar, W., S. Lötters. 2004. "Phyllobates terribilis" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. Accessed May 07, 2011 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/55264/0.

Clarke, B. 1997. The Natural History of Amphibian Skin Secretions, Their Normal Functioning and Potential Medical Applications. Biological Reviews, 72/3: 365-379.

Cordell, G. 1993. The Alkaloids: Chemistry and Pharmacology V43. San Diego, California: Academic Press.

Daly, J., C. Myers, J. Warnick, E. Albuquerque. 1980. Levels of Batrachotoxin and Lack of Sensitivity to its Action in Poison-Dart Frogs ( Phyllobates ). Science, 208: 1383-1385.

Daly, J. 1995. The Chemistry of Poisons in Amphibian Skin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 92: 9-13.

Darst, C., P. Menendez-Guerrero, L. Coloma, D. Cannatella. 2005. Evolution of Dietary Specialization and Chemical Defense in Poison Frogs (Dendrobatidae): A Comparative Analysis. The American Naturalist, 165/1: 56-69.

Duellman, W., L. Trueb. 1994. Biology of Amphibians. Baltimore, Maryland: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

Gratwicke, B. 2011. "World Association of Zoos and Aquariums WAZA/ United for Conservation" (On-line). Golden poision frog. Accessed April 04, 2011 at http://www.waza.org/en/zoo/choose-a-species/amphibians/frogs-and-toads/phyllobates-terribilis.

Hagman, M., A. Forsman. 2003. Correlated Evolution of Conspicuous Coloration and Body Size in Poison Frogs (Dendrobatidae). Evolution, 57/12: 2904–2910.

Jovanovic, O., M. Vences, G. Safarek, F. Rabemananjara, R. Dolch. 2009. Predation Upon Mantella Aurantiaca in the Torotorofotsy Wetlands, Central-Eastern Madagascar. Herpetology Notes, 2: 95-97.

Maxson, L., C. Myers. 1985. Albumin Evolution in Tropical Poison Frogs (Dendrobatidae) a Preliminary Report. Biotropica, 17/1: 50-56.

Myers, C., J. Daly, B. Malkin. 1978. A Dangerously Toxic New Frog (Phyllobates) Used by Embera' Indians of Western Colombia, with Discussion of Blowgun Fabrication and Dart Poisoning. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 161/2: 313-337.

Savage, J. 2002. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Stewart, S. 2010. "The True Poison-Dart Frog: The Golden Poison Frog Phyllobates terribilis" (On-line). Accessed February 20, 2011 at http://www.herpetologic.net/frogs/caresheets/terribilis.html.

Walls, J. 1994. Jewels of the Rainforest:Poison Frogs of the Family Dendrobatidae. Neptune City, New Jersey: T.F.H. Publications.

Weygoldt, P. 1987. Evolution of Parental Care in Dart Poison Frogs (Amphibia: Anura: Dendrobatidae). Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research, 25/1: 51-67.

Widmer, A., S. Lotters, K. Jungfer. 2000. A Molecular Phylogenetic Analysis of the Neotropical Dart-Poison Frog Genus Phyllobates (Amphibia: Dendrobatidae). Naturwissenchaften, 87/12: 559-562.