Discovering the Golden Poison Frog

by AMNH on

On Exhibit posts

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Museum herpetologist Charles W. Myers made several expeditions a year to the Colombian rain forest, not far from the Pacific coast. Myers was there studying a particularly charismatic group of amphibians: extravagantly, exuberantly colored small frogs from the family Dendrobatidae, which could be spotted dotting the bromeliads and rocky streams of the jungle.

A yellow frog with large dark eyes, perched on a green leaf.
Golden poison frog

Although dendrobatids may be beautiful, these tropical Central and South American frogs are also very, very poisonous.

In fact, the Emberá people who live where Myers was conducting his fieldwork used certain of the frogs’ toxic skin secretions to add lethal tips to blowgun darts. Amid the streams and rivers of the Andean foothills, and in lowland rain forest dotted with pockets of fields carved from the forest for growing plantains, the Emberá hunted animals with these toxic darts.

Golden Poison Frog habitat Colombia (Myers 1978)
Golden poison frogs live on the ground (not in trees) in forests like this one, in western Colombia. 

Among the three species the Emberá used was an orange or bright-yellow frog that had never previously been described. Over several years, Myers and his colleagues John Daly and Borys Malkin collected hundreds of specimens of this new-to-science species, at two inches long, larger than any other dendrobatid.

In the process, they discovered that it was 20 times as toxic as any of its kin. Each animal oozed enough poison, Myers reckoned, to kill 10 grown men if the poison somehow found its way to an open wound on each victim. Myers and his colleagues gave the species an intimidating name: Phyllobates terribilis.

A Dangerously Toxic New Frog
To read this 1978 article about "a dangerously toxic new frog," by Charles Myers and colleagues, click here.

Phyllobates terribilis, commonly known as the golden poison frog, is just one of 10 dart-poison frog species featured in the Museum’s live-animal exhibition Frogs: A Chorus of Colors. A selection of its small, jewel-hued dendrobatid kin also can be seen in the vivarium at the center of the Frogs show. 

“Most frogs have skin toxins,” says Christopher Raxworthy, associate dean of science for education and exhibition and curator in the Department of Herpetology, who oversees the Frogs exhibition, “but dendrobatids are notable both for their small size and tremendous toxicity.” The frogs featured in the exhibition, however, are actually fed a non-toxic diet, rendering the frogs non-toxic, too!

A version of this story appears in the summer 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.