The True Poison-Dart Frog: The Golden Poison Frog (Phyllobates terribilis)

The Golden Poison Frog (Phyllobates terribilis)

Why do we call the golden poison frog the true poison-dart frog? 

Because these frogs are considered not only the most poisonous frog on the planet but the most toxic animal in the world. 

On top of that, even though the Dendrobatidae family includes roughly 170 frogs that are all often called poison dart frogs, only three species could be considered extremely toxic. 

Out of those three, of course, Phyllobates terribilis is the most toxic which makes it the true poison dart frog. 

This care sheet will walk you through you need to know about the natural history and distribution of the Dendrobatidae family along with specific breeding and care information regarding the Phyllobates terribilis in captivity. 

You can also use the table of contents below to find exactly what you’re looking for. 

Natural Distribution of The Dendrobatidae Family

The Dendrobatidae family has drawn interest from all walks of life for as long as they’ve been known. 

Whether that’s the modern-day amateur herp keeper, the professional naturalist or wildlife photographer, or even the first Europeans to visit the region more than 200 years ago. Of course, these frogs were also an important part of the indigenous tribes in South America for thousands of years. 

The large Dendrobatidae family includes the genera Dendrobates, Phyllobates, Epipedobates, Minyobates, Colostethus, and Aromobates.

Altogether, this family includes more than 300 species of frogs which are collectively known as poison dart frogs. 

Their natural distribution ranges from modern-day Nicaragua in Central America to the middle parts of South America. You can see their full distribution and concentration in this map from Amphibiaweb.org:

Natural Distribution of The Dendrobatidae Family

As you’d expect, members of the Dendrobatidae can be found near rivers and bodies of water but as with all other dart frogs, they don’t actually swim. But these frogs can also be found in some more unexpected places like the dryer lowlands where humidity is scarce. There are also both terrestrial and arboreal species.

Natural Distribution of Phyllobates terribilis

The golden poison dart frog (Phyllobates terribilis) is found primarily on the western coast of Columbia between an altitude of 300 to 700 feet. 

As with many members of Dendrobatidae, Phyllobates terribilis prefers tropical environments with rainfalls of 16 feet or more and a humidity range of roughly 85%. Phyllobates terribilis spend the majority of their time amongst smaller foliage like young trees and smaller plants and ferns. It’s important to keep this preference for climbing in mind when keeping dart frogs and provide some kind of elevation. 

The modern distribution of Phyllobates terribilis is less than 2,000 square feet. While environmental changes have impacted its range, the golden poison dart frog always had a concentrated distribution. 

Phyllobates terribilis In Popular Culture

Species from the Dendrobatidae are constantly finding their way into popular culture. 

And for good reason. 

Their amazing colors, powerful toxins, and even just the name “poison dart frog” can quickly capture our imagination.

But the belief that every brilliantly colored frog that’s part of this large family is used for creating poison arrows is simply a myth. In other words, our collective imaginations have run away from us quite a bit as Westerners tend to imagine that the rain forest is full of highly toxic frogs. 

In reality, there are only three species of frogs within this family that could be considered extremely toxic. That’s less than 1% of the 300+ species that make up this family which is far cry from what popular culture would have you believe. 

Not only are there only three species that produce poison strong enough to use on arrows or darts but when you combine that with the very limited distribution of the most toxic frogs (like Phyllobates terribilis) it’s amazing that these little frogs have gained this much popularity at all. 

Frogs Aren’t The Only Poison Used By Indigenous Peoples

It’s interesting to note that multiple South American tribes have used poison of some kind to coat their arrows and darts. 

Where toxic frogs like the Phyllobates terribilis weren’t available, tribes used a combination of plants from the genus Strychnos (most commonly S.toxifera and S.castelnaea) along with some plants from the Menispermaceae family that was called curare. 

Rather than lead to death, curare was usually used as a paralyzing agent that had obvious applications for hunting but also for purposes like muscle relaxation. 

Different Tribes Took Different Approaches To Harvesting Poison From Poison Dart Frogs

Where the Noanama Choco Indians skewered the frogs in order to harvest the poison, other tribes like the Choco Emberá Indians used a different approach where they simply rubbed their darts on the back of the frog (most likely Phyllobates terribilis)- no stick to the insides required. 

Again, there are really only a handful of tribes that made use of these species to coat their arrows and darts. But it is interesting to note the different approaches towards harvesting. 

Navigation and Geolocation Abilities of Phyllobates terribilis

While Phyllobates terribilis couldn’t be considered especially intelligent, as is the case with most other frogs, they have shown an impressive ability to geolocate and can return to same location even after days, weeks or years. This is most useful and prominent when it comes to the mating habits of Phyllobates terribilis and other dart frogs.

Basic Facts About Phyllobates terribilis In Captivity

But now let us turn our attention to the stare of this piece: Phyllobates terribilis. 

Phyllobates terribilis is primarily terrestrial and most active during the daylight hours. They adjust well to captivity and are very infrequently perturbed which means there are plenty of opportunities for viewing. 

This likely owes to the fact that in the wild, Phyllobates terribilis doesn’t need to hide and their bright golden color is a clear warning to all in their natural habitat. 

Captive bred Phyllobates terribilis are the same size as their wild counterparts. As the largest species of poison dart frog, you can expect some individuals to reach 55mm and males will typically be smaller. 

The combination of their large size and calm natural make them a very pleasurable herp to keep. 

Toxicity of Phyllobates terribilis 

The golden poison dart frog is poisonous rather than venomous. Unlike a snake which can deliver the venom on it’s own, the frog itself is poisonous. 

While the inexperienced enthusiast may think the idea of keeping a poison dart frog is risky behavior, captive breed frogs lose their toxicity. Thus, it’s safe for the amateur herper to keep a captive breed poison dart frog. 

The captive diet is missing a specific nutrient that would allow the frogs to produce their poison but it’s not clear what the nutrient or food source is. Numerous studies, including an analysis of the fecal matter, haven’t been to directly pinpoint the missing ingredient. 

Still, a wild-caught Phyllobates terribilis can maintain poison production for years and any herpetologist should be clear on the source of their Phyllobates terribilis or any other poison dart frog. 

Phyllobates terribilis produce an alkaloid toxin that leads to paralysis and then heart failure. 

But what’s truly remarkable about this species is just how lethal their poison really is. A single frog contains roughly 1 milligram of poison which is enough to kill 10 to 20 humans. This level of lethality is extremely rare in the natural world and there are only a few species that can even be compared to Phyllobates terribilis

Keeping and Breeding Phyllobates terribilis In Captivity 

Phyllobates terribilis can be fed a variety of worms, flies, and other small insects which makes them a relatively low-maintenance poison dart from to maintain. While they may not be as intelligent as some herps, because of their natural defense, they also show very little fear towards humans which makes them enjoyable to watch. Additionally, while other frog species can be quick to bite (and this is especially true of the feisty Pacman frog) dart frogs don’t have this instinct thanks to their powerful poison. 

Humidity is critical for Phyllobates terribilis and keepers will need to target 75% or greater humidity to mimic their natural rain forest environment. This can make these frogs tougher to keep in especially dry areas where maintaining the appropriate levels of humidity can be even more difficult. 

Frogs can be kept together and the keeper should expect sexual maturity to occur between 13 months and 18 months of age. Males use a distinctive trill call to attract females and you can see this here: 

Clutch size is in the lower range for typical poison dart frogs at roughly 5 to 15 eggs. As you’d expect based on their tropical habitat, eggs do best with high humidity. In the wild, males would take the eggs to streams and tadpoles begin to develop after roughly 10 days. 

Tadpoles can be reared together and this video does an excellent job walking you through the process from egg to tadpole to froglet: 

Closing Thoughts

While at first the thought of raising the most poisonous creature in the world sounds like a daunting task, not only is Phyllobates terribilis relatively easy compared to other poison dart frogs but the loss of their toxicity in captivity makes them a safe herp to keep.