Phyllobates terribilis, the Deadly Golden Boy of Chocoan rainforests

Notes on the care and breeding of Phyllobates terribilis in Colombia

(Peter Rockstroh)

At just under 2"/5 cm for some adult females, the Gold Poison Frog, Phyllobates terribilis, is a relative giant among poison dart frogs. Described in 1978 and now Endangered in the wild, it is infamous for possessing (in wild and fairly recent captives) one of the most toxic substances produced by any animal. Skin secretions from these frogs are used by indigenous Emberá people in the region (the Cauca and Valle de Cauca Departments of Pacific coastal Colombia) to smear on their arrow and dart points. Together with two other Colombian species of Phyllobates, these frogs produce several alkaloid toxins, the best known of which is batrachotoxin. These alkaloids are distinct from the skin toxins produce by other genera of poison dart frogs. To give you an inkling of just how potent this frog's skin toxins are, P. terribilis is estimated to be about 20X more poisonous than the most toxic dendrobatid species. A single adult frog produces enough skin poison to trigger contested wills and other acrimonious litigation amongst the heirs of a dozen formerly living people.

 Portrait of a superb captive-bred yellow phase  Phyllobates terribilis  in Colombia

Portrait of a superb captive-bred yellow phase Phyllobates terribilis in Colombia

In spite of the formidable chemical defenses of wild individuals, of all the poison-dart frogs, Phyllobates terribilis is probably the most rewarding species to keep. They are fairly big for a frog, very brightly-colored and are active all day, making them a great choice for display tanks.

Although most poison dart frogs are conspicuously colorful, not all like to hang out in open areas. More often than not when you collect dendrobatids you spend a lot of time searching for signs of life in your terrarium. This is not the case with P. terribilis. They like exploring open areas and given the the necessary space you can enjoy them from sunrise to sundown.

And they are bold, as if they are well aware of how frightfully toxic they can be on their home grounds. Especially at feeding time, they come to the front of the display and will take food from your hand (or tweezers). That is a great advantage when, as it was in my case early on, they had to be hand-fed medicated food. When vivarium inhabitants are too shy it is difficult to verify who eats what and how much. But these friendly golden cochitos will eat everything put in front of them.

 Orange morph  Phyllobates terribilis

Orange morph Phyllobates terribilis

I kept a group of 2.3 animals that I obtained as rescue froglets. They were originally destined to be euthanized by the breeder as they showed slight bone deformities, making them look deformed and malnourished when compared with the rest of the group they started from. I fed them three times a day with vitamin/calcium dusted crickets and they grew pretty fast. About four months after receiving them fro the breeder, astonishingly, they had reached adult size. By that time they were robust, brightly-colored, vivacious animals and all signs of incipient bone problems had disappeared.

Calcium and vitamin-coated crickets and occasional meal worms were their staple diet. Every once in a while I would use a Berlese funnel and sieve through 13 gl/50 liters of leaf litter and feed them all sorts of critters, but, in order top keep their toxicity as low as possible I finally stopped feeding them "wild food". I am very careful feeding meal worms and try to avoid the large and tough ones, although the frogs don´t seem to mind. They will also eat small earthworms and basically anything that moves and fits into their mouths.

In order to get the full display of breeding behavior you should keep at least two males and various females. When there is competition among males, they vocalize more and the whole group shows a more dynamic behavior. The tank I set up was 48" x 24" x 24"/120 cm x 60 cm x 60 cm and the animals had enough space to move about and do their thing. "Their thing" usually started around 0630 hrs with the older male trilling like a canary, the younger male joining in and all the females in our house (including my wife and daughter) homing in on the two tenors.

VIDEO Male Phyllobates terribilis calling

They reached sexual maturity when they were about 18 months old. I supplied them with two Petri dishes covered by a half coconuts as breeding refugia. Eggs were laid at regular intervals and guarded, but never hatched because the temperature was a bit too low.

 Male  Phyllobates terribilis  calling

Male Phyllobates terribilis calling

It is interesting to see how critical minimum and maximum temperatures are for this species. At daytime temperatures of 73 degrees F/23 C their eggs will not hatch, because the 5 degree F/3 C drop at night is too drastic. Ideally they should be kept at 80-82 degrees F/26 – 28 C and night temperatures 72-75 degrees F/22 – 24 C. If the temperature rises much higher than that, they wlll hide under vegetation or look for cool and dark corners to lower their body temperature.

Of the three main known color morphs, which are apparently locality-specific, I've kept both the pure yellow and orange forms. They are quite similar in terms of behavior.

I have also seen the mint green morph that occurs some distance from the main populations, but never had the opportunity to keep them. The appear to be far more commonly available in the US and the EU than locally.

Phyllobates bicolor is a black-legged, closely-related species that also occurs in the Pacific lowlands of Colombia. As a captive, it can tolerate a few degrees F lower, but are generally not as active in vivaria as P. terribilis. As is evident in the image below, they are also very attractive poison dart frogs popular with collectors abroad.

  Phyllobates bicolor,  yellow form

Phyllobates bicolor, yellow form

In retrospect, my main mistake with the setup was the way the tank was designed. It was essentially a small indoor garden in my living room, planted with cool weather orchids, ferns and bromeliads. Living in Bogotá, I did not want to spend a lot of time and money growing small warm weather plants, when I could easily grow plants accustomed to the cool weather of this region.

None of my tanks have a sealed bottom, so as to avoid them holding standing water. I use a double or triple layer of shade cloth over egg crate-type plastic lighting diffusers. Depending on how humid I want the substrate to be, I add variable amounts of sphagnum moss to it. When the mixture has no sphagnum (, i.e. coco fiber/coir, bark, leaf litter) it drains freely. Since even freeze-dried sphagnum will come back from the dead when watered with RO water, the tank got very lush. Having had bad experiences with several heating systems, I opted to install a dog bed heating pad which is very safe, but can't have anything in contact with it apart from a dog. It heats a 1"/2 cm air space underneath the tank, above which there is an acrylic panel where the excess water runs of.

Except for problems with the development of eggs in the tank, everything else was doing fine. The frogs were thriving, the plants did great and the whole ensemble looked gorgeous Since the tank couldn't be heated to the desired temperature without taking it completely apart, I chose to return the frogs to my friend but keep the terrarium going and eventually try with a cooler climate frog species later on. They are still kept as a group by a breeder and produce a few dozen tadpoles every month.

Phyllobates terribilis is not only a fantastic beginners poison dart frog, but a great frog species for large display tanks in general. If I were to build another terrarium to exhibit and breed this species again, I would use a central island of low vegetation as a layout concept, built around an interesting piece of dry wood, with plenty of room around it for the frogs to pose and move around. Since this is not a bromeliad leaf cup breeder, for companion plants I would focus more on interesting native terrestrial plants and less on epiphytes. I would also substitute live sphagnum for short carpet mosses and similar bryophytes.

 Courtship in captive  Phyllobates terribilis  in captivity in Colombia

Courtship in captive Phyllobates terribilis in captivity in Colombia

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