Situated in southeastern Peru, close to the borders with Bolivia and Brazil, the astonishingly biologically diverse Tambopata National Reserve is home to more than two hundred species of reptiles and amphibians.
When exploring the forests of South America’s Amazon basin, one of the warning signs employed by fauna which should never be ignored is bright coloration. In nature, brightly colored bodies usually mean danger, in the form of high toxicity: in other words, poison.
The so-called poison dart frog is no exception to this rule. This is the common name given to what is in fact a group of frog species from the Dendrobatidae family, found in rainforests all the way from Central to South America, and ranking among the most beautiful and yet highly toxic animals found anywhere on the planet. Depending on the individual species, the vivid coloration of these carnivorous amphibians can range from bright yellow or gold, to copper, red, green and blue. Poison dart frogs have no regard for camouflage: their bright colors are intended as an explicit warning to any would-be predator. For example, while less than two inches (5 centimeters) long, the golden poison dart frog, native to Colombia, is considered the world’s most poisonous vertebrate. The venom from a single frog is said to be powerful enough to poison between ten and twenty adult humans. Traditionally, native peoples have used the poison from such frogs in their blowpipes, resulting in the common name for the family.
Attracted by the moist lowland forest floor and wetlands of the area, one species common to the rainforests of Tambopata National Reserve is the three-striped poison dart frog (Ameerega trivittatus), easily recognized by the three livid yellow bands running vertically down its dark back and flanks. Examples of this species with green or orange stripes have also been recorded. This is one of the larger species of poison dart frog, measuring more than 5 centimeters (2 inches) in length. It feeds mostly on ants, with males adopting and maintaining a specific territory during the rainy season, when frogs and other amphibians tend to breed. The three-striped poison dart frog lays its eggs on land, usually among clusters of leaves, and it is the males who care for the eggs and carry the tadpoles on their backs to pools once they have hatched. It is at such water sources that metamorphosis occurs, more than fifty days later. In humans, contact with a three-striped poison dart frog can lead to severe cramping, seizures and partial paralysis.
Scientists are still trying to determine where exactly poison dart frogs get their extraordinary toxicity from. It is known that frogs raised in captivity do not develop toxicity, and some scientists have hypothesized that poison dart frogs are actually able to assimilate the poison from the toxic insects they themselves prey upon.