Nature’s Moste Potente Potion – Golden Poison Frog

For those of you wondering about the title, no it is not a typo. It is an obscure Harry Potter reference, and if you got it, I applaud you.
Remember that golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis) I mentioned in the last article about the hooded pitohui? Well, I thought it should get its very own entry because it’s just such a cool little thing. As I mentioned before, it is one of the few animals that carries the deadly batrachotoxin. It gets this poison from the beetles and ants it eats just, like the pitohui does. The frog, however, is much, much, much more dangerous! You can even get this from its Latin name – “terribilis” speaks for itself. So before I explain how toxic it is, let’s find out where they live and what they’re like so if you ever travel there, you can keep an eye out and avoid them like the plague.
The golden poison frog is found exclusively in the rain forests of Colombia in South America. Instead of living on the forest floor like many other poison frogs, it lives in the trees up to about eight feet above the ground. These poison frogs do come down occasionally, especially when feeding, but generally stick to high up plants. They don’t use bromeliad pools to lay their eggs, so they need to come down to the ground in order to reproduce as well. When the eggs hatch into tadpoles, the parents transport them to water filled tree hollows where they can metamorphose. Golden poison frogs, like other poison frogs, are very social animals and live in groups with up to several individuals in captivity.


Now the part about their poison. Like I said, it is much stronger than the pitohui’s. It is a very important killing tool to the native people of Colombia when they hunt. Pinning a frog with a stick and rubbing a heated dart across its back can keep the dart effective for two years afterward. Some tribes even keep several of these frogs in woven baskets for their poison, but they must take great care in doing so. Inevitably, there are cases where people have died from accidentally touching a captured frog. The average frog contains around one milligram of poison, which is enough to kill up to 20 adult humans or two male African elephants. This can be translated to 15,000 humans per gram of poison. Not only is the poison toxic while on the frog itself, but it can last once rubbed off as well, as in the case of the poison darts. It is absorbed through the skin, so simply brushing against a frog or something its skin has touched can kill. Batrachotoxin attacks sodium ion channels on cells within the central nervous system, which causes paralysis of pretty much everything including the heart and lungs. This can lead to death for a person in five minutes. The golden poison frog has special sodium channels that aren’t affected by batrachotoxin, which is why it can carry such a deadly substance around without any harm to itself.

Ball and stick model of batrachotoxin’s molecular structure.

Funnily, these frogs are often kept by amphibian hobbyists as pets. It’s okay, though, because captive raised frogs aren’t toxic at all and can be handled freely for as long as the animal will tolerate it. All the poison comes from their diet and captive frogs’ diets are devoid of the prey that gives them their deadly defense. However, wild caught golden poison frogs are dangerous. Even after a change of diet, the toxins can linger in the frog’s body for years afterward, so it is inadvisable to keep anything but a captive bred golden frog. As the name states, they obviously come in a lovely, bright gold color, but there are also a variety of other color morphs. These include the orange morph and mint morph.

Mint morph


Orange morph by John Clare on Flickr.

As beautiful as golden poison frogs are, stay well away if you ever go to Colombia and find one! You wouldn’t even be able to be sorry if you got too close because you’d be dead.

1. Gratwicke, Brian. “Golden Poison Frog.” WAZA. World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, n.d. Web. 25 June 2015. <;.

2. Patocka, Jiri, Kräuff S. Wulff, and María V. M. Palomeque. “Dart Poson Frogs and Thier Toxins.” Ed. Colonel R. Price. The ASA Newsletter 74 (1999): n. pag. Applied Science and Analysis. Web. 24 June 2015. <;.

3. Stuart, Sean K. “The True Poison-Dart Frog: The Golden Poison Frog.” Frogs., n.d. Web. 24 June 2015. <;.

4. Alvarez, Mariela C. and Wiley, Mary. “Phyllobates terribilis”. Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, 20 Aug. 2011. Web. 24 June 2015.

5. Wunderli, Michael. “Golden Poison Frog (Phyllobates Terribilis)” Encyclopedia of Life., n.d. Web. 25 June 2015. <;.

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