I picked my way through the soupy jungle air, flinching at the tinnitus whine of mosquitos. A guide from the Salt Creek indigenous community squelched a couple of steps ahead of me. We had just spent time watching the murderous eyes of a Caiman glide across the surface of a forest lake. The guide turned to me and said “Now I want try to find a red frog to show you” I responded with “oh, ok, great!” We had encountered so much incredible wildlife on the trail that I already felt blessed, but what I really wanted to say was “YES! YES! That is what I want to see, in fact it is the reason I’m here! This isn’t just a red frog! It is a Strawberry Poison Dart Frog!”
I remember seeing Strawberry poison dart frogs in a shop in London, maybe 35 years ago. I wanted to buy a pair so badly, but I also knew that we couldn’t hope to afford them, and even if we could mum wasn’t going to trust a 10 year old with a poison dart frog. The memory of this encounter had stuck with me though, and I was excited to be in the rainforest where they live, on the emerald Panamanian island of Bastimentos.
I had heard the trill of a frog deep in the undergrowth earlier in the hike. The sound came again and the guide confirmed that the distant sound was a red frog. Our challenge was not insignificant; the jungle is vast and at 17 to 22 mm (0.69–0.87 in) in length the diminutive frog would be a vibrant needle in a prodigious haystack.
The rainforest path was strewn with fallen red berries from the overhanging trees. For the first few meters of the trail I had felt my heart skip every time I saw a berry. But the berries weren’t frogs. We stood listening to the trilling coming from the dense undergrowth and took a few steps towards it. Suddenly I saw a red berry jump. Then it jumped again, and again. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only was I looking at a Strawberry poison dart frog, but I had spotted it myself. I pulled out my iPhone and took a snap, to prove to myself that I’d seen it. I slipped the phone in my pocket and fixed the macro lens to my camera.
By this time the frog was working its way up a tree trunk. It stopped to rest on a leaf before continuing its journey upwards. I clicked just a few shots, not wanting to stress the frog, as macro takes a little longer to set and focus. I knew I had a couple of decent shots and was delighted to have made this encounter. The guide spoke with me about the colour variations of this species and we also discussed the frogs unique skin. Consuming the Strawberry poison dart may well be fatal, however they are not as toxic as many of their cousins. There are no records of humans dying as a result of contact with this species, but there are certainly records of frogs dying after contact with humans. Their skin is especially susceptible to hands that have traces of mosquito repellent.
The conservation status of the Strawberry poison dart frog is currently listed as Least Concern. This is encouraging as we have seen population fluctuation due to habitat destruction and collection for the pet trade. The establishment of Central American breeding farms for the pet trade and a move by garden and land owners to encourage frog habitats has resulted in a stabilization over recent years.
Any article about this fascinating frog must mention its unusual breeding habits. The frog breeds throughout the year, laying about 5 eggs at a time in damp leaf litter. The parents return to the eggs each day. The male keeps them moist by peeing on them until they hatch. When they hatch the female carries the tadpoles, one at a time, on her back into the trees, where she deposits them into the pool of water in the heart of bromeliad plants. One tadpole per plant.
These plant pools contain algae and insects as a food source, but the female returns to each plant daily and deposits a few infertile eggs into the pool as a source of protein for the tadpoles. She does this for around 50 days, until fully developed mini frogs leave their tree-top pools and strike out into the jungle.
A little further down the trail we found another Red Frog. This time a slightly different colour morph, that was almost completely red, except for socks, gloves and a white underbelly. The frog carried on its way up a tree trunk, giving me a chance to fire off a couple more shots before he climbed out of reach. I love how the macro lens picks up the detail of the textured skin.
I wish I could have spent a whole day in that jungle, watching and photographing Red Frogs. The chance to see a poison dart frog in the wild seemed so remote to me as a child. I had now seen my second species in the space of a week. I’d like to say that my thirst has been quenched, but in truth I have spent way too much time studying poison frog distribution maps since I returned home.
Now, where can I see the Blue poison dart frog…
Join the conversation below. Have you encountered poison dart frogs? Where did you see them? Maybe you have encountered a species that you have wanted to see since childhood?👇👇👇
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