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How did the poison dart frog get its name?

September 15, 2005


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


Poison dart frogs, also referred to as poison arrow frogs, number over 165 species. They possess a brilliant array of striking red, yellow, green or blue colors and vivid patterns of spots, stripes, or both. The bright coloration of the frogs serve as a warning to potential predators that they can be one of the most poisonous animals on earth. The degree of poison each group possesses also varies, ranging from mildly toxic to lethal to humans or large animals.

Poison Dart Frog
The blue poison dart frog, Dendrobates  azureus, can reach two inches long and weigh less than an ounce.

Poison dart frogs derive skin toxins from their diet of assorted insects, such as ants, termites and beetles that feed on toxic plants. T ribes of native South Americans use the toxin to make poisonous darts for hunting. T he Chocó Indians employ the secretion to the tips of their blowgun darts for hunting monkeys, deer and other small game. Tribesmen capture the frogs with leaves or long sticks, then wipe their arrows or darts across the frog’s skin. The use of frog poison for this purpose is practiced only in the Pacific lowlands of western Colombia, although the poison dart frog family include less toxic relatives living throughout the tropical rainforest in lower Central America and northern South America.


The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island displays several of these unique frogs in its “Bite, Shock, Sting” exhibit. Home to numerous toxic animals from land and sea, the popular display includes snakes, lionfish, jellies, eels, spiders and, of course, frogs. Most of the creatures in the exhibit, with the exception of the poison dart frog, are native to North Carolina, and many share a common characteristic – the transfer of venom for the purpose of survival. The captive-bred frogs at the Aquarium 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!