Working with poison dart frogs, from a biologist’s perspective

By: Lauren Hauber

Biologist Lauren Hauber holds up a yellow and black dart.  We occasionally have to handle our frogs for health examinations.

Biologist Lauren Hauber holds up a yellow and black poison dart frog. We occasionally have to handle our frogs for health examinations.

Hello, my name is Lauren Hauber and I’m the biologist in charge of taking care of all the poison dart frogs here at the Adventure Aquarium.  I have been working with the frogs here for about 2 years, but have been fascinated with amphibians my entire life.  When I was younger, I remember going out in the back yard of my house and trying to catch frogs, tadpoles, and anything else I could catch with my butterfly net.  It’s funny how that’s not much different from what I now do for a living.

When people think of dart frogs, they think of tiny little, brightly colored frogs that you can’t touch without getting sick or dying.  This prompts the question, so how do people like me handle them without getting poisoned?  While wild animals certainly are very toxic and can cause you great harm just by touching them, animals in zoos and aquariums are not.  The reason being that dart frogs acquire their poison from the insects they eat in the wild.  This is why even a wild dart frog will eventually lose its potency if kept in zoos and aquariums long enough.  Knowing that most people don’t know this, it’s funny to me when people gasp when they see me cleaning the windows or feeding in the dart frog exhibit.

dart frog_CRW_0085 (2)

Blue poison dart frog

Most of the frogs on display at the Adventure Aquarium use camouflage to prevent themselves from being seen by predators.  This is not the case with dart frogs.  All day long you will see them out in the open hopping along without a care in the world.  Unlike most frogs, they want to be seen by predators.  Their bright colors let predators know that they are without a doubt, not good to eat.  Being such bold animals, many of them will look up in expectation of food when they see me open the lid.  Some will even hop up the back wall as fast as they can to be the first ones in line.  I always love it when they do that.  Every once and a while they ride on the yellow-footed tortoise’s back and I can’t help but smile when I see that.

A dart frog hangs out with our yellow footed tortoise

A dart frog hangs out with our yellow-footed tortoise

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is seeing these animals produce more dart frogs.  Unlike most other frog species, poison dart frogs take care of their young, the extent of which depends on the species.  Our green and black poison frogs are the most prolific breeders at the aquarium.  I will usually come in one morning to find a small mass of 3 to 6 eggs laid in a Petri dish with the dad sitting not too far away, watching over them.  Since the eggs aren’t laid in water, the male will periodically “pee” on the eggs to keep them moist and to prevent fungus from growing on them.  It’s really cool to be able to watch the embryos slowly develop into tadpoles, a process that takes about two weeks.

Checking on the tadpoles!

Checking on the tadpoles!

When the eggs hatch, Dad will allow the tadpoles to wriggle up onto his back and he will transport them to a “suitable” water source.  In the wild this would be a water-filled tree hole, a bromeliad, or a puddle of stagnant water on the forest floor.  Parental care stops at this point, so it’s up to me to care for the tadpoles.  I will collect all the tadpoles from Mom and Dad’s enclosure and I will put them in a plastic cup full of water.  I feed them special tadpole pellets every day and in about two months they morph into the cutest little froglets.  If you thought Mom and Dad were small, think again.  The juvenile frogs are about one quarter the size of the adults.  You may wonder what such small animals eat, and the answer is fruit flies and very small crickets.  This is convenient since that’s what the parents eat too.  They just love them!  The froglets grow fast on this diet and in about one year they are fully grown adults.

Dart frog tadpoles

Dart frog tadpoles up close

All poison dart frogs are native to the rainforests of Central and South America, which as we all know is under threat by deforestation.  If we want future generations to be able to see and appreciate these beautiful animals, we need to stop destroying their homes.  When you visit Adventure Aquarium during Frogs: Nature’s Messenger, you can learn how to help frogs in the wild!

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