I always thought poison dart frogs squirted lethal poisons. I came across two different species on a trip to Costa Rica, and was pleasantly surprised to see my fear was exaggerated, as many fears tend to be.
It is a common name for frogs in the Dendrobatidae family, native to Central and South America. They are named for their use by indigenous Amerindians who used the frogs’ secretions to poison the tips of blowdarts. But of the over 175 species, only 4 species were actually used for this purpose. The frogs’ bright colors are a warning signal to predators, a defense mechanism known as aposematism.
The degree of toxicity in each frog species varies, and there are only three that are dangerous to humans. Neither of the two frogs pictured here were poisonous to us. In any case, since frogs secrete their toxins through the skin, to receive their poison you would have to touch it.
Two teen brothers in our small group were constantly touching them. The real hazard, these frog lovers explained, was imparting human bug spray into the frogs’ sensitive, thin skin; if we were ever to pick up any frog, we should not have on lotions of any kind. Their devotion was demonstrated in this sticky, humid rainforest by the constant swatting at persistent mosquitoes.
These frogs are really tiny: one inch long (2 cm). I’ve seen strawberries bigger than the strawberry frog! If it hadn’t been for the boys lifting logs and leaves, and snatching the frogs gently and quickly, we never would have seen them. Once we bid adieu to the boys and their parents, Athena and I sought out the frogs on our own.
My job was to gingerly walk through a patch of grass where a ranger had indicated they might be found. It was sopping wet grass and with every sloshy, squishy step I took, a cloud of mosquitoes poofed up around my hiking boots. Occasionally a strawberry frog would jump up a few inches and then land. Athena followed, crouched close to the ground, and snapped away.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander