This brightly colored, minute amphibian stands out in the forest without a care in the world considering that while (s)he might otherwise be a delectable morsel on some predator’s menu, this colorful little frog has no issue. And it’s all thanks to what they eat.
Akin to micro-machines, these tiny, tropical frogs may be something around the tip-of-your-pinkie in size but these little critters hold a grand stature with that unduly confident, elbows-out, take-me-on stance.
That kind of confidence in the rainforest from such a diminutive creature can only be held by one that is likely toxic—and therefore deadly—for consumption.
The defensive chemicals in a poison dart frog derive from what these quarter-sized critters feed upon which is primarily made up of ground-dwelling ants and mites. This is how they obtain the poisons that their bright colors loudly advertise to predators.
Certain ants contain formic acid, we feel it in their stings. Mites contain alkaloids that wreak a poison-packed punch. After consuming these invertebrates, the dart frog’s body sequesters these chemicals and secretes them out of their porous skin, hence making them toxic for consumption. Predation on one of these micro-amphibians could be highly debilitating or deadly to potential predators like birds and reptiles.
Thus we’ve resulted in these vibrantly colored frogs that have survived to wander freely in the light of day, across the rainforest floor like a bright beacon, not a worry in the least.
And the variety of color combinations create this fantastical rainbow of different color morphs, sprayed across the archipelago and mainland of Bocas del Toro. While ever the same species, the number of morphs surpass 60 or much more while, invisible to evolution, these artistic spectacles are simply different ways these individuals and their highly morphologic skin can act as warning signals, which echo across evolutionary time, ever the more dazzling, ever the more likely to persist.
Bright warning colors are often displayed by toxic life forms (including certain plants and fungi), you can probably come up with one. The scientific term for this bright coloration of a toxic species is known as “aposematic coloration” this highlights these lifeforms with an alert displayed to predators that, over time and evolution has come to say: “Eat me and die.”
The predator that dares to consume a colorful (often red) life form, such as a poison-dart frog, that predator and its deadly inclinations becomes lost to time and nor will it pass on offspring which could be of similar intent. Meanwhile, on the contrary, those predators that avoid the frog survive to have offspring that will also tend to avoid predating a poison-dart frog.
Before you might try to hold a strawberry poison-dart frog (or any amphibian for that matter) please first consider that their skin is porous and engages in gas exchange which that our hands’ oils and chemicals can be passed on, enter their skin and block the pores through which the frogs gather necessary oxygen and other gasses that it simply needs to live.
While we do react to this species if the toxins entered our bloodstream, it could may well be deadly to humans (depending on the dose) and could certainly cause permanent eye damage. The simple rule to go by? Simply leave the critter to continue about his or her day and enjoy the view a few steps back, ideally with binoculars or a zoom camera.
Quietly watching from nearby you might discover a male comfortable with you enough to start calling. Be sure to look through binoculars to see his tiny throat pouch inflating rapid-fire, telling other males “Back off, this is my territory!” Or you might see one catching a meal, perhaps a formicide ant? Video is a great way to “capture” these fascinating critters. Best is when you catch them fighting for territory and females, two admittedly adorable little clawless gummy bears trying to topple and pin the other over!
Scientifically known as Oophaga pumilio or common name Strawberry Poison-Dart Frog, this species’ range traverses the humid lowland forests on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. If you’re a local or are already tuned into amphibians, you may know Bocas del Toro is famous for its poison-dart frogs known best by their common, more widely known name, “strawberry poison-dart frog”; or perhaps you’ve visited Costa Rica and heard its famous nickname, the “blue-jeans frog.” No matter the name, Bocas red frogs are a complete and utter natural wonder, a phenomenon of color morphology that paints the frogs in a spectacular array of color combinations across the archipelago.
In fact it’s just happenstance that these little critters have a skin color gene that is super easily tweaked one way or another when it comes to whether a population of frogs becomes deep red with gray legs, solid hot magenta pink, metallic blue with tiny dark spots or greenish-gold with big black spots. We’ve got them all, here in the archipelago, as well as on mainland Bocas del Toro. There are awe-invoking color differences depending on your location throughout the area.
But back to what we’re really here for, that million-dollar question: How do we find every color of the frog, and where the heck are they?
Well, before I give it away, I want to mention some things. These frogs are delicate and so is their habitat. The challenging and difficult balance is, how much must we trample these functioning ecosystems just to chase down a creature simply living its regular life while we interrupt its whole environment (and day for that matter) to get the prize snapshot of a beautiful creature that lives there?
And how many people both before and after each of us who walk upon the same terrain want to experience the same thing? It’s something to think about when chasing down this species—or any kind of wildlife—for that perfect photo. Sometimes nature just doesn’t adjust herself to our desires and, devastatingly, we have to go home without that winning photo and let the critters just be.
We also need to consider that these populations across our archipelago are isolated and highly open to threats of climate change. It seems that the Bocas version of climate change is the ever-rising frequency and impact of droughts and, when a frog enthusiast digs around to uncover a hiding frog from its leafy, under-a-log escape, stirring up the leaves with a machete or uncovering them by hands, we’re destroying this habitat in a way in which it won’t come back.
Pulling apart the leaf litter reveals the underlying soils, opening them up to drying out, which changes and degrades the habitat. Leaf litter is crucial to keeping the moisture level in the sub-soil layer for this ground-dwelling, moisture-dependent amphibian. The simple act of tossing leaves about can cause real harm to an ecosystem, especially one already threatened by other human-caused impacts.
Overall, the rule is, if the leaves crunch under your feet as has occurred more and more in our moisture-starved rainforests, and if the frog in question is retreating under the leaves to reach a moister habitat: Do Not Pursue.
I’m not trying to be a buzzkill, telling folks not to go frog hunting, but rather to be conscious of what irreparable harm we can ever so easily impart on these fragile creatures’ ecosystems that are already stressed with repeated drought conditions. What we want to do is simply reduce our impact and increase our awareness and educate ourselves and others. Rather than trying to find someone to blame, we can all move forward together with an open mind, shared opinions and raised awareness.
That especially means awareness for the tourists that come to see the real Bocas. It’s unbelievable and perhaps not uncommon that a tourist might come to and leave Bocas with only a hangover while never getting to know a local indigenous Ngäbe or seeing a two-toed sloth or learning about the curious world of the strawberry poison-dart frog or why mangrove forests are wildly crucial to our lives or how our fragile corals reefs are so unique yet deteriorating.
It’s simply that all we humans are like that. We don’t intend to hurt ecosystems, the desire to see everything upon visiting a place is well meaning but, paired with the harm we unintentionally induce, is the unfortunate and simple impact that high tourist activity paired with lack of prior education and awareness and knowledge about these unfamiliar habitats and ecosystems we’ve likely never visited before. So how are they gonna know? Us. The boteros, the guias, and anyone else that wants to spread the good word.
With the rise in tourism Bocas is seeing, we can’t all trample an area to see the frogs. We need to step lightly and consider that many more folks before and after us are going to come to Bocas too, gung-ho to ”see it all” and get a true idea of real Bocas and its biodiversity. With growing awareness and education with and from the community, together we can help inform visitors to the archipelago and educate them about the incredible phenomenon that is the Bocas del Toro red frog.
Article by Stacey M. Hollis
About the Author
Stacey Hollis is from the DC area with an innate passion for birds seemingly from birth (tracked the birds flight from my mother’s arms) quickly led her to come to the sad realization that birds and ecosystems in general are threatened by human impact. The biodiversity of the American tropics has lured me down here and I intended to stay from the moment I first experienced the tropical lowland rainforest of Costa Rica in 2002.
Stacey has spent four seasons guiding avid birders and nature-loving guests at Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge and now I am in the process of starting my own independent ecotours..but with a twist. I want to spend time with Bocas del Toro’s local youth in an effort to combine efforts and train these youngsters in the art of eco-guiding. I call my Ngäbe and Afro-Caribbean students my “co-guides” because their sharp eyes are of great value which I hope them to find that as a great value in their selves and when they accompany me on ecotours, the guests will inevitably show their appreciation. If you’d like to learn more or support eco-guide workshops and field practice for young local Bocatoreños, please visit:
Stacey does wonderful bird and frog watching eco-tours, along with her native co-guides. Learn more on her Bocas Biodiversity website.