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Poison Dart Frog/Care

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Marbled Poison Frog, Aldelphobates galactonotus.
Poison dart frogs, or dendrobatids, have entered herpetoculture in healthy numbers, mainly because of their brilliant coloration, somewhat babyish features (such as large eyes and plump bodies), and interesting behavior. Lethally toxic in the wild, poison dart frogs retrieve their poisons from the toxic ants and beetles on which they feed. Therefore, captive poison dart frogs not fed on such insects rapidly lose their toxicity in captivity, making them completely harmless to their caregivers.


Unlike most frogs, poison dart frogs will not accept any sort of insect placed in front of them; one could almost consider them to be fussy eaters. Their tiny size (the largest reach about 7 cm long) limits the number of food items available to them; but the individual frogs often have a preference of one kind of food over another. Flightless fruit flies are among the most common insects fed to dendrobatids, and are more readily available than other food sources suitable for these minute anurans. The most commonly used species is Drosophilia melanogaster, but D. hydei has been used for some of the largest species, including Dendrobates tinctorius and Phyllobates terribilis.

Pinhead crickets, or juveniles of other cricket species, may be fed to poison dart frogs as well. These seem to be most popular with Phyllobates spp., but, again, the frog's preference seems to play a part in whether they will take them. If given a choice, most poison frogs will chose to attack the fruit flies over the crickets, but will eat the crickets if they have no choice, provided, of course, that the crickets are actually small enough for the frogs to tackle.

Other, less common food items include springtails, termites, or spiders; these are rarely offered for sale and should not be given to poison frogs as a default. Care must be taken to ensure that the exact species of spider fed to the frogs is known; some are toxic and may kill the amphibians.

A blue poison dart frog.
An important point to note is that fruit flies are usually bred by frogkeepers as they are generally more expensive than other feeder animals. Culture given to the fruit flies usually consists of mashed bananas, oatmeal, yeast, and occasionally some other fruit ingredients. The fruit flies willingly feed on this culture, within carefully sealed containers. Normally, each container contains about 50-60 fruit flies. When the frogs are fed, the fruit flies are tipped into a plastic bag, dusted with supplements (which add extra salts and nutrients that keep the frogs healthy and strong) and carefully tipped into the frogs' enclosure. Dusting the flies with calcium and nutritional supplements makes them more valuable meals, but the white powder on their bodies is also very plainly seen and quickly attracts the attention of the poison dart frogs. While other feeder animals should be dusted with such suppliments as well, they do not require being bred.

Housing Edit

Unlike most pet frogs, poison dart frogs will rapidly decline in a marshy terrarium designed to hold Rana or Bufo spp. Poison dart frogs are not as capable swimmers as many other species, and will not thrive in a water-centered vivarium. These creatures hail from the tropical rainforests of South America, and thus their vivarium must be designed to replicate this as much as possible.

The bottom of the vivarium should be covered with a base substrate, such as pea gravel, dense enough to filter out excess water from the main vivarium, but not so dense that the frogs may swallow some if it becomes exposed. If the frogs swallow the substrate, intestinal impaction may occur. Pea gravel, or another form of aquarium gravel, is commonly used. The base substrate is usually separated from the main substrate by nylon mesh carefully inserted to fit the amount of floorspace. The main substrate used can vary based on preference, the type of vivarium, or the species of frog. Sphagnum moss is a common substrate, sold in many gardens and vivarium stores. Another substrate used for poison dart frog vivaria is jungle mix, commonly used for tree frog vivaria. Local mosses can be grown in the vivarium; however, this is not reccomended as it may transfer parasites and invasive organisms to the frogs.

Bumblebee 13
Bumblebee poison frog, Dendrobates leucomelas.
Above the substrate, most vivaria are fitted with a leaf litter. The leaf litter usually consists of oak leaves, roasted to kill any organisms that may be living on the leaves that could harm the frogs. Often this leaf litter is sufficiently similar to that which is found in the rainforest to make the frogs feel as if they are in their natural environment. In the moss, plants are placed which add decoration, a realistic touch, and protection for the frogs. These plants must be live and placed within the substrate; plastic plants are not enough for dendrobatids. Ferns, creeping plants, and some tropical plants are common, as are the water-holding, vase-like bromeliads. Sometimes, other plants are used for decorative purposes. Among the plants, pieces of driftwood are mandatory to allow some degree of climbing; it is often easy to forget that, vivid colours aside, dendrobatids are still treefrogs. If nothing else, tall plants and driftwood should be placed within the vivarium; allowing the frogs to reach a vantage point from which they can observe their surroundings. Preferably, artificial tree bark should be placed along at least three internal sides of the vivarium. This, again, adds a realistic look to the vivarium; but its practical use is to allow the frogs to climb with their suckerlike toe discs. Artificial tree bark is rather simple to make: unscented cat litter combined with reddish-brown clay is often enough to create a bark-like surface on the walls of the vivarium. In addition, log bridges, overhangs, and ledges are popular with such amphibians, and should be added if possible. For realism, small plants can be grown on such arboreal additions to the vivarium. It is of note that the frogs themselves should never be inserted into their vivarium until it is complete. Some of the chemicals used to glue the arboreal features into the tanks are highly toxic, and amphibians are especially vulnerable with their permeable skins.

A poison dart frog vivarium should be given humidity anywhere from once every other day to three or four times a day, depending on the method used. Poison dart frogs require minimal ventilation, so it may be in their best interests to have their vivarium sealed, with a small area that may be opened and closed to insert food. Humidity may be added with a fog system, rain system, mist system, or drip system, or with a handheld spray bottle. Bottled or otherwise distilled water must be used as chlorine and other chemicals can harm or kill poison dart frogs. It is more practical to use one of the automated moisture systems, as using a handheld spray bottle takes longer and usually gives the frogs less humidity.

Health Edit

For the most part, if their vivarium is kept clean and moist, dendrobatids are healthy and hardy frogs. However, like any organism, they can become ill; sometimes critically so. Commonly encountered medical problems of dendrobatids include nutritional and metabolic disorders, infectious diseases (protozoal, metazoal, bacterial, fungal, and viral), as well as other idiopathic syndromes (edema syndrome, prolapse). If you suspect that a frog is sick, the first thing to do is to contact a veterinarian, ideally with amphibian experience or expertise. However, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the stress on the frog until veterinarian care can be administered.

NOTE: The following information is not a replacement for the necessary treatment for the specific condition of your frog. It is only a recommended regimen for maintaining the frog’s condition until it can receive the appropriate attention by a veterinarian.

The signs of a sick frog are often non-specific to the illness, and are best described by the acronym ADR ("Ain’t Doing Right"). Signs may include decreased movement, lowered body posture, soaking in pools of water, and remaining in an abnormal tank position (out in the open). Other more overt signs may include “bloat” (edema), or the observation of prolapsed (everted) tissue from the rectum, cloaca or mouth. Signs are not limited to those listed however, and if you suspect that a frog may be sick, observe it closely for any further evidence.

Sick Leuc
A bumblebee poison dart frog, crytically ill with chytridiomycosis, which in this very severe case has spread beyond the skin and deep into the body.

If a frog is ill, the first thing to do is to carefully remove the frog from its vivarium/container and place it in an isolation container. Isolation containers can easily be constructed from a small Sterilite container or deli cup, lined with moist paper towels. Paper towels serve the dual purpose of both a neutral substrate as well as allowing for the easy collection of a fecal sample (to be submitted to the vet for analysis). The isolation container should also contain cover to offer security for the frog. Crumpled paper towels or disposable containers with doors cut into them serve the purpose well. If using more conventional hides (i.e. cocohuts), make sure to discard or completely disinfect after use. Keep the isolation container in a place where the temperature will be within the recommended range for the particular species, typically mid-70s (º F). While in the isolation container, observe the frog for worsening of signs. It is important to use separate containers and tools when working with an isolated frog. Always assume that the signs were caused by a transmissible agent which can be spread to the rest of your collection. The use of gloves and hand sterilizing soaps is also recommended.

Osmolality is a measure of the amount of osmotically active particles in a solution. Amphibians maintain hyperosmotic plasma (osmolality of 200-250mOsm), while “fresh” and distilled water have osmolalities of 20-40mOsm and 0mOsm, respectively (1). Given this large difference, amphibians expend large amounts of energy maintaining their osmolality in the environment. Providing an ill frog with an isotonic environment (same osmolality) allows the frog to reduce the energy expended in maintaining osmolality and utilize it elsewhere (i.e. fighting infection). This can be achieved by soaking the frog in an appropriate solution. Ideally, the frog should be soaked in Amphibian Ringers Solution (ARS). ARS can be made with the appropriate ingredients (see below), or purchased from a veterinary/scientific supply company (prescription not required) (see links section). If ARS is not available, then Pedialyte, a common electrolyte solution for children, can be used.

NOTE: Pedialyte is hypertonic when compared to the frog’s plasma, and is therefore not considered ideal, but is better than soaking with pure water. Pedialyte also lacks calcium, and shouldn’t be used when hypocalcemia (low plasma calcium levels) is suspected.

1 Liter

Distilled Water - 1 Liter

NaCl - 6.6 g

KCl - 0.15 g

CaCl2 - 0.15 g

NaHCO3 - 0.2 g

1 Gallon

Distilled Water – 1 Gallon

NaCl - 25 g

KCl – 0.57 g

CaCl2 – 0.57 g

NaHCO3 - 0.76 g

Mix solution thoroughly to ensure that all crystals are dissolved. Agitate thoroughly before use. Keep in a closed container to reduce evaporation.

To soak the frog, place the frog in a container with sides high enough to prevent it from hopping out. Pour in enough of the solution to allow the maximal amount of contact with the frog without submerging it. If the frog is so weak that it is unable to support its head, place the frogs head on top of a soda bottle cap or something similar. Success has also been observed when maintaining debilitated frog on paper towels soaked in ARS, thus eliminating any risks of drowning. Frog should be closely monitored while soaking. Soaking can be done for a couple of hours at a time, and can be lengthened after consultation with a vet. The solution should be changed regularly (between soaks).

Offer small amounts of food (fruit flies, termites, RFB larvae) to the sick frog. Use caution to not add so much food as to cause the frog stress. If the frog shows no interest in eating, remove the food from the isolation container. An additional supplement, calcium gluconate, can also be given. Calcium gluconate offers both the benefits of calcium as well as glucose, than can provide a boost to an anorexic frog. Calcium gluconate can be purchased from veterinary/agricultural suppliers (see links section). It is most commonly sold as a 23% solution, but should be diluted down to ~2% for use. To do this, dilute 1 part of the 23% solution to 10 parts ARS or distilled water. Make sure the frog is sufficiently moist (following brief misting or soak), and apply several drops of the 2% solution to the frogs back (2). This can be done up to a couple of times daily to provide energy to the frog.

NOTE: When dosing with calcium gluconate, the paper towel substrate should be changed regularly as the glucose promotes bacterial and fungal growth (2). Both stock and diluted solutions should be stored in the refrigerator and regularly checked for bacterial growth. If the solution (stock or diluted) appears cloudy, it is most likely contaminated and should be replaced. Allow the refrigerated solution to warm to room temperature before administering.

Perhaps the most important step is contacting a veterinarian. As previously mentioned, the care described below only helps alleviate the immediate crisis the frog may be in, but does nothing to cure the problem causing the signs. For that reason, a consult with a veterinarian is essential. Finding a veterinarian with amphibian experience is often very difficult, but very important. The two main resources for finding such a vet are other amphibian keepers and the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV). The ARAV website (ARAV redirect) has a listing of all its members. Use the list as a jumping board to find ARAV vets in your area, and then call around to see what their exact experience regarding amphibians is.

If a veterinary visit is necessary (as determined by the urgency of the frogs condition or a consult with a veterinarian), then care should be taken when transporting the frog to the vet’s office. Small deli cups with a moist paper towel substrate are ideal. Transport the frog in a lunch cooler or Styrofoam box to maintain constant temperatures, with the addition of a heat or cool pack in temperature extremes if necessary. If available, bring a fecal sample. It is important to tell the vet as much about the husbandry and history of the frog as possible. The vet, with the proper information, may then be able to offer you more insight to the nature of the problem, and any treatments that may be necessary.

In the unfortunate event that the frog dies, much information can still be gained through a necropsy. As soon as you discover the deceased frog, place it in a small container, and then place that container within another container containing ice or ice packs, and place it in the fridge. DO NOT FREEZE THE FROG. Contact someone willing to do the necropsy, and ask them how they would like you to handle the frog. Necropsies can be performed by veterinarians with experience doing such procedures, or by a local university – particularly those with veterinary schools. Emailing or calling the pathology department of a veterinary school is a great place to start. If your local vet is unable to perform the necropsy themselves, they may be willing to send it out for you to Northwest Zoopath ([url], who can then perform the necropsy. The cost of a necropsy widely varies depending on the types of tests done and the person doing the tests, but it can be well worth it if it protects other frogs in your collection.

Breeding Edit

This page is a work in progress.

The author will finish this article later. In the meantime, try not to add anything significant, as he/she may have something in mind. However, for the time being you can make small changes to the page and try and make it better.

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