Pint-sized Poisoner – Green & Black Poison Dart Frog

Most kids on my street had pet dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and a host of other furry friends. My pets were, with the exception of a guinea pig of two, of an altogether more slippery kind – amphibians. It started with frogs from the local pond, progressed to salamanders and other European amphibians, and eventually, the jewel in the crown, the Green and Black Poison Dart Frog.

These paint explosion of metallic green seemed like one of nature’s most exotic secrets, so the chance of seeing one in the wild rainforests of Central America was almost unimaginable. These tiny gems were top of my wish list when I booked a trip to Panama. I even wrestled for a macro lens for my camera on eBay just in case a little hopper crossed my path.

20171120-untitled (6 of 36)
Green and Black Poison Dart Frog

The first few days of the holiday found us staying on a small island on the Pacific coast of Panama. Isla Muertos has one holiday house on an otherwise uninhabited island. From research I knew there would be poison dart frogs in the area, as well as a host of other wildlife. What I wasn’t prepared for was the number of frogs that lived around the house. My expectation of long, sweaty hikes slashing through vindictive rainforests, lashing at my flesh with thorns, stinging plants and biting insects turned out to be entirely unnecessary. I didn’t need to go to the frogs because the frogs came to me.

20171120-untitled (7 of 36)

The Green and Black poison dart frog, in common with most of the poison dart family, is a small brightly coloured frog. I have read that it grows up to 4 cm (1.57 inches) in length, but I have not seen one, wild or captive, over 3 cm (1.18 inches). This frog is only active during the day time, but has no need for camouflage. Quite the opposite is true, as it sports a striking coat of vibrant, swirling metallic green, which serves as a warning to potential predators. Ignore this warning at your peril, for this is one of the most poisonous creatures on the planet.

20171120-untitled (14 of 36)
One of many poison dart frogs on the deck of the house

Some of the photos that I have published here look like they were taken in an aquarium. You can see smooth wooden planks and a frog against the glass. But these are all wild frogs. Early in the morning, or after one of the daily downpours, a few of the more adventurous frogs would hop up on to the deck to explore. This included an inspection of the windows and doors. Their presence on the raised deck gave me a great chance to climb down to the ground and position myself at eye level with them.

20171121-untitled (34 of 36)
In an aquarium? No, this guy is trying to get into the house!

The nightly routine before heading to bed was to take out the trash to the outside garbage bin. I didn’t want the ants to come in for the pineapple peel. One night we had a visitor. No doubt it was one of those masked bandits, raccoons, that pulled over the garbage can, dragged the torn liner and its contents over the yard. At first light my bleary eyed disappointment soon turned to amazement as I realized that the strewn trash was surrounded by a bubbling, bouncing army of frogs. The ants had come and so to had the fruit flies, and where there are ants and fruit flies the frogs will surely follow.

20171124-untitled (18 of 29)
A frog hunting in the trash

Perhaps this moment did take little of the exotic mysticism away. I anticipated a rare encounter with a timid little emerald, peeping out from the jungle leaf litter. Instead I got a pack of scavengers boldly gathered around a raccoon demolished trash can. This isn’t what you read about in books and it isn’t what David Attenborough shows you on the television.

The frog’s diet is largely made up of tiny jungle ants as well as other pin-head sized invertebrates. The body of these ants contains small amounts of alkaloids. It is these alkaloids that the dart frog converts to the deadly skin secretion that gives it its name. Dart frogs kept in captivity lose their toxicity over time as the aquarium diet of fruit flies and micro-crickets does not provide the raw ingredients required to create their killer soup.

20171123-untitled (3 of 29)20171124-untitled (29 of 29)

Humans have been tied in a close relationship with this lethal little hopper for many centuries. The tribes of the Central American rainforests collect them to extract the powerful poison from the skin. This poison is smeared onto dart tips and used in blow-pipes to shoot canopy animals during bush meat hunts. The toxic brew is so powerful that a monkey shot with such a dart will fall dead from a tree in moments. The Green and Black dart frog is by no means the most poisonous of the dart frogs, but it is powerful enough to stop your heart from beating in minutes.

The deadly nature of poison dart frog’s skin is generally well known. Perhaps less well known is the research that has been taking place over recent years in to the benefits to humanity that could be hiding in those deadly alkaloids. Pharmaceutical companies are currently studying a painkiller found in the skin of the Green and Black poison dart frog that is 200 times more potent than morphine, with no side effects of addiction.

This frog is not currently listed as endangered, but the devastation that we continue to inflict on the world’s rainforests is well documented. As we lose these treasure troves, we lose the jewels that live within. In our thirst for instant rewards of land and timber we may be destroying the creatures that hold the key to the survival of our species. Painkillers, new antibiotics, maybe a cure for cancer may all be hiding in a tiny, jewel encrusted frog’s back, waiting to be found.

20171124-untitled (28 of 29)

For my part, I’m less concerned with what hides in their remarkable little jackets. It was my privilege was to spend time on the deck of a rainforest cabin, with a smile tattooed across my face, in the company of these bold little jungle gems. This was a bucket-list encounter for me, even as I was picking them out of the garbage. It was in fact, a dream come true!


Join the conversation below. Have you encountered poison dart frogs? What is your dream wildlife encounter? 

Connect others with wildlife by sharing this post on your social media accounts. If you enjoyed this post, follow Incidental Naturalist.

Categories: Central AmericaTags: , , , , , , , ,


I am a wildlife blogger and traveler, using images & stories to inspire wild connections.


  1. Great post, David. This is what the true nature adventures are all about: we find the native creatures in all places, sometimes expected, and often not. Living in the true forest on your trip, instead of the resorts that are sprayed and lit and void of wildlife, is also what nature followers like to do, if it’s possible. I am certain that David Attenborough would’ve been doing the same thing as you, crawling around in the dark, the mud, and following the ants until you got to the gems. Long live the poison dart frogs.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the really great comment, Jet! Nature is always ready to surprise us and to remind us that we are part of the eco-system ourselves. The best way to experience nature is surely just to put ourselves in it and enjoy everything that occurs. I was also thrilled to be able to do this with my 5 year-old son on the Panama adventure.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alison, thank you so much! It is really interesting that we are moving our thinking from frogs that kill to frogs that cure. There are many types of poison frog. I’ll be posting another article about a red guy that I also encountered. He was also a two centimeter frog. As a family they really are a jewel box. I love the yellow and black species.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That macro lens you got from eBay certainly did its duty well. I love the sheen of the frog’s metallic skin, pretty but deadly. It’s funny how many things in the world that are beautiful or tasty (when it comes to food) can be dangerous; some nuts and vegetables we eat here in Indonesia are actually toxic if they’re not processed properly.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you! I was pretty pleased with the results. I bought it, tested it on a small LEGO person and then was faced with taking pictures of these guys. I’ve never met frogs that move so much, so it was a challenge! You are right, I always wonder who discovered that you can process a poison plants to make them edible. I guess some poor soul was hungry enough to try anything at some stage.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t keep them anymore. They poison frogs were maintenance but not high. Heat, humidity and pin-head food. The challenge is humidity with enough air flow to keep the glass clear but small enough vents to keep the food in! If you ever decide to keep them please make sure that you don’t buy wild caught specimens. Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Great post, David – thank you! The up-close photos show that metallic green off beautifully. And relative to their poisonous skin, the frogs have a pretty relaxed, even “confident,” look in your shots (though very possible I’m projecting that onto them “)).

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you! 😊 When you actually encounter a frog the size of a thumb nail you soon realise that they are not in any way terrifying. In fact there was probably more chance of me killing myself with dodgy electrical wiring or on a bumpy boat ride than at the sticky hands of a frog. 😁 Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a fascinating article and accompanied with so many great photos. I knew these frogs were poisonous but not about the current research.

    I’m sorry to read in an earlier comment that they’ve been introduced to Hawaii. Hawaii has worked very hard to keep out all exotic specimens. Too many of its native species have been decimated by invasions of creatures that don’t belong there. On such small islands, it wouldn’t take long to decimate even more indigenous creatures and cause problems that they might not be able to curtail. Think about the pythons in Florida.

    Still, I’m glad you had a chance to see the frogs in their native habitat.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. driving2spain

    Awesome experience and great pics. Im always amazed at how so much of what is good for usnin terms of pharmacology is fiund in the rain forest in otheewise scary places. Great read.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Fascinating and well-written intro to the environment where poison dart frogs are found. It’s especially interesting for since I recently moved to Colombia and want to learn as much as possible abut the country’s flora and fauna. I lived in SE Asia for many years, and thought the many plant and animal species might be similar but the variety of flora and fauna from one tropical region of the world to another varies greatly. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. nattaproblem

    It’s interesting how this works. I just wrote a piece about my Costa Rica adventures, whereupon I came across several of these creatures. Then, I see this post. Great photos! The mint colored frogs are my favorite. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s