How did the poison dart frog get its name?

September 2005

These colorful little frogs are so named for the defensive toxins they secret from pores in their skin.

The blue poison dart frog, Dendrobates azureus, can reach 2 inches in length and weigh less than an ounce.

Poison dart frogs, also called poison arrow frogs, number more than 165 species. They come in a brilliant array of red, yellow, green or blue , combined with vivid patterns of spots, stripes or both. The small frogs may be one of the most poisonous animals on earth, and their bright colors serve as a warning to potential predators. The degree of poison each group possesses varies, ranging from mildly toxic to lethal to humans or large animals.

Poison dart frogs get their skin toxins from their diet of assorted insects, such as ants and termites and beetles that feed on toxic plants. Tribes of native South Americans use the toxins to make poisonous darts for hunting. Tribesmen capture the frogs with leaves or long sticks, then wipe the tips of their blowgun arrows or darts across the frog’s skin.

The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher displays several kinds of poison dart frogs. The Aquarium’s captive-bred frogs are fed a regulated diet of fruit flies, supplemented with vitamins and minerals. As a result, they are virtually harmless.

Poison dart frogs play a crucial role in the dynamic field of biomedical research. Concentrated in jungle camps and modern laboratories, teams of medical researchers have discovered that toxic alkaloids from the skin of certain poison dart frogs have unique effects on human nerves and muscles. For that reason, the frog toxins have become important tools in understanding and treatment of neurological and muscular disorders. Ironically, someday a poison dart frog may save your life!