Discovering the Golden Poison Frog

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Museum herpetologist Charles W. Myers made several expeditions a year to the Colombian rain forest, not far from the Pacific coast. Myers was there studying a particularly charismatic group of amphibians: extravagantly, exuberantly colored small frogs from the family Dendrobatidae, which could be spotted dotting the bromeliads and rocky streams of the jungle.

Image: The golden poison frog is the most poisonous frog among the dendrobatids. © AMNH/T. Grant

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Although dendrobatids may be beautiful, these tropical Central and South American frogs are also very, very poisonous.

In fact, the Emberá people who live where Myers was conducting his fieldwork used the frogs’ toxic skin secretions to add lethal tips to blowgun darts. Amid the streams and rivers of the Andean foothills, and in lowland rain forest dotted with pockets of fields carved from the forest for growing plantains, the Emberá hunted animals with these toxic darts.

Black-legged poison frog, the second most poisonous of the dendrobatids.

Among the three species the Emberá used was an orange or bright-yellow frog that had never previously been described. Over several years, Myers and his colleagues John Daly and Borys Malkin collected hundreds of specimens of this new-to-science species, at two inches long, larger than any other dendrobatid.

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In the process, they discovered that it was 20 times as toxic as any of its kin. Each animal oozed enough poison, Myers reckoned, to kill 10 grown men if the poison somehow found its way to an open wound on each victim. Myers and his colleagues gave the species an intimidating name: Phyllobates terribilis.

For more on the golden poison frog, including a link to Myers' original article published in 1978, keep reading here.