Dendrobatid Frogs - Introduction and Basic Care

The following is intended as something I can give to those interested in starting with poison dart frogs to help them decide if these frogs will be a good fit for them and to help determine which species to start with.  I have been keeping these frogs since 1995 and have kept and bred many species, but by no means all of those which are now available.  This reflects my experiences with these frogs and there are other methods may prove successful in some cases.  However, I tried some shortcuts early on which I now wished I hadn’t so I recommend starting with the tried and true methods before deviating from ‘what normally works.’


    Poison dart frogs are among the most popular terrarium animals for those who have already    kept some of the easier, beginner species of frogs and other small herps.  They are small, but colorful and active during the day.  Many are relatively easy to breed and captive bred stock is now available for a wide range of species.  They show a variety of interesting behaviors.  There are many different species and a huge variety of forms within most species meaning that they can be found naturally in almost any color and a wide range of patterns.  Additionally, they can be kept in beautiful and elaborate terraria without causing significant damage and many forms are outgoing enough that they will still be visible in such habitats.


    There are also drawbacks to keeping these.  The most difficult thing for new keepers of these frogs is often raising their food, they have  temperature and humidity requirements which must be maintained carefully and finding healthy stock can present problems in some cases (average pet stores which stock these often sell tiny froglets or maintain them poorly thus reducing eventual chances for success).


     A wide variety of other small reptiles and amphibians are available, many of which are much easier to keep than poison dart frogs.  Various tree frogs, newts, geckos, and even aquatic frogs and fish can be very rewarding to keep.  If cleaning out and then starting new fruit fly cultures once a week without fail, frequent heavy misting and draining of tanks and keeping temperatures from climbing into the 80s seem a little too much for your current schedule or situation; look into some of the many other herps being raised now.


    In particular, fire-bellied toads make a great starter frog which have a different lifestyle than Dendrobatids (the more scientific name for the poison dart frogs), but are also quite colorful and can be kept in semi-aquatic terraria which can be very attractive.  These are a cheaper and easier alternative to Dendrobatids that were my starter frogs which and, along with a range of other amphibians, provided valuable experience that helped me succeed with the touchier Dendrobatids a few years later.  One note of caution: unlike the poison dart frogs, these continue making skin toxins in captivity so handle them with care.


Legality:

   These frogs are legal to keep in most areas of the country including Utah.  Certain cities or counties in other states have included these in bans on venomous snakes and other dangerous animals because of their poisonous reputation, but I don’t know of any Utah cities or towns that have banned them.

    Many bans on certain types of animals, especially at the local level are not based on sound science.  Accentuating these frog’s poisons and exaggerating their threat to people has been done in many articles and books and sometimes even by institutions and hobbyists who keep them.  Only three of these species could be dangerous to people in the wild, but there is practically no danger in keeping even these when captive bred and making them sound more dangerous than they are should be avoided.

   Utah’s animal ownership laws are among the most restrictive in the country, but these frogs are classified as uncontrolled by the state.  One applicable Utah law requires veterinary health certificates for any animals imported into the state.  While this appears to have been originally intended for livestock, this was applied to rubber boas in one prominent case with serious consequences for the individual involved.  This makes legally having any animals shipped into Utah a more expensive and difficult proposition.  Most breeders and dealers are not going to go through the hassle of obtaining such certificates to be able to sell to a relatively insignificant market.


Handling:

    No dendrobatids are really suitable for handling.  When fed on a diet of captive produced insects, they lose their skin toxins and do not present any kind of a danger to humans.  They can be moved by being cupped in one’s hand.  However, their sensitive skin and small size leaves them vulnerable to drying out very easily, and they are not going to hold still enough to be held without being restrained.

Housing:

    These frogs stay fairly small and do not need a lot of room; a ten gallon tank provides plenty of room for a pair of most species.   While all of these will climb to some extent (for some just to find safe sleeping sites at night)  floor space is more important for the terrestrial species which make up most of the genera in this group.  Taller tanks work well for the arboreal species found mostly in Oophaga and Ranitomeya.  Ten or twenty gallon tanks can be turned on end and a door built on the front - though this must be done carefully to prevent any gaps.  Kits are available which make this process much easier. Be cautious of using plexiglass lids or doors which will warp over time.  The front opening terraria tanks now available are very nice for these frogs, but the screen top must be replaced with something less open or they will quickly dry out.  

    These frogs climb any surface (including glass) very well and can escape out of surprisingly small gaps and holes, so it is important to use a lid which fits very tightly.  As their main food is fruit flies, the lid should also keep these in the terrarium as much as possible so that the frogs will have plenty of food and so that they don’t migrate all over the room and building in which they are kept (which almost always happens to some extent no matter how tight the tank is).  It is also crucial that the humidity in a terrarium for dendrobatids be kept very high.  These frogs quickly die if they dry out.  Anything more than a small vent open to the air will dry these out too much in an indoor climate. Lids with substantial amounts of screen cannot be used with these frogs. I use glass (or plexiglass on some of my older tanks) lids with a small amount of ventilation to keep heat from building up and provide some ventilation. I aim for an opening of about 10% to 20% of the top area depending on the cage height and plants to be kept. This is covered with a micro mesh metal or no-see-um netting that will prevent fruit flies from escaping.

   All of the water that is added to their tanks to meet their humidity requirements can build up and  will need to be drained out.  I use what are called false bottom tanks, where a substrate that drains well  is suspended above the cage floor using expanded clay pellets (used in hydroponics) or a florescent lighting cover called egg-crate and fiberglass screen.   I place an additional layer of expanded clay or pea gravel under the other substrate materials to prevent the frogs from burrowing under the substrate as some species (especially auratus and galactonotus) will try to do.  I top the gravel with coconut husk fiber, then sphagnum moss and leaf litter.  I drill my tanks and insert bulkheads to allow the water to drain. Alternatively, a tube can be inserted that reaches the bottom and used to siphon the excess water out.

    To keep from becoming stressed out, they will need some places to hide.  Plants usually provide much of the cover.  Leaf litter, coconut shell halves and cork bark are also often used for hiding spots.  I restrict my plants to neotropical species and mostly use vining type Philodendron and Monstera species, Nephrolepis exalta, and Selaginella pallescens along with a variety of Anthurium and Syngonium in my tanks.  Ranitomeya and Oophaga species need bromeliads.  A variety of other aroids, ferns and even orchids can be included in their vivaria with attention to their needs.  I avoid wandering jew and pothos as these both grow too fast and will constantly have to be cut back.  It is important that any commercially grown plants be carefully washed and any soil removed to prevent fertilizers and pesticides from being added to the tank.

    Most Dendrobatids can be raised in groups and some species can even be kept in groups as adults, but many of the most popular species do best in pairs.  Details of group sizes which work can be found in the species section below.  In summary, tinctorius (including azureus ) can be only be kept in pairs, females are very aggressive toward one another and if more than one female is kept together one will usually die.  The other Dendrobates (auratus, leucomelas and truncatus) can be kept in groups without harming one another, but will only breed in pairs.  I have had A galactonotus breed in both small groups and pairs.  Phyllobates and Epipidobates species can be kept and bred in group with few problems.  Ranitomeya species do best in pairs, but some have bred for me in small groups too.  Oophaga should be kept in pairs only.  They have a reputation for being aggressive, so I have never tried anything but pairs.


Temperature:

    These frogs, like most amphibians, fare best if kept near room temperature.  68 to 75 F is ideal.  The fluorescent or led fixtures used to meet the lighting requirements provide some heat which will keep tightly closed tanks warm enough that no additional heat is needed in normally heated rooms.  Air conditioning in the summer is usually a requirement for keeping these frogs alive and additional cooling may be necessary if the lights warm the tanks excessively.  Placement in a cool place is often adequate to prevent overheating, misting systems and cutting the lights if the temperature rises or even using small fans in conjunction with misting to maintain humidity can also be used to keep temperatures from becoming too high.     


Light:

    Tanks need to be lit with more than just ambient room light for the frogs to behave naturally, to support the plants they require and to allow them to been seen by their keepers.  I use primarily high output T5 fluorescent lighting now, but am transitioning to the bright LED fixtures being made for aquarium use. The advantage to the LEDs is that they use less energy and produce less heat. While those that put out enough light for terraria are more expensive than other lighting options, I feel that their benefits make them well worth the added up-front cost. For good plant growth, a single HO T5 tube or LED fixture designed for planted or fish-only aquaria running the length of the cage is usually sufficient for short tanks. Two work well for taller ones.  For low light pants, a single T8 or regular T5 tube will be adequate and less bright LED lighting (eg. undercabinet fixtures)could also work well. The compact fluorescent (or LED) screw-in type bulbs can also be used.  Most amphibians do not seem to need UVB from their light and it would be absorbed by the glass or plastics used for lids anyway, any type of fluorescent tube will work, though those with a cool or natural color temperature usually look appealing on frog tanks.  Incandescent and halogen bulbs produce far too much heat for use with Dendrobatids.

Water:

    These frogs come from habitats where the humidity is always high and will die if they or their cages are allowed to dry out.  In captivity this needs to be mimicked by frequent (at least once per day) misting of the enclosures.  This can be done with a spay bottle or pump-up sprayer devoted solely to this purpose (it should never have been used for cleaners or garden chemicals).   The pump-up garden sprayers can be bought quite cheaply and work very well.  For my collection, I use a built in misting system which makes this task much simpler, but can be difficult and/or expensive to set up.  It is also important that air flow be monitored to keep humidity in the cages high.  Screen lids would quickly kill these frogs in Utah’s dry air. Water added to frog tanks needs to be free of chlorine, a fish dechlorinator added to the water works well for this purpose, but RO or distilled water should be used if possible to prevent mineral buildup on the glass and other surfaces in the tank.

Food:

    Dendrobatid frogs eat only live insects, and as most species catch them with a small tongue, even some of the biggest species cannot eat anything bigger than a large fruit fly.  To grow and reproduce, these frogs need large quantities of these small insects in frequent feedings.  Raising their food is easily the most time consuming and difficult part of keeping dendrobatids for the new hobbyist.  Pinhead crickets can be used to feed these in an emergency, but are very expensive to buy - each frog will need hundreds of tiny insects over the course of a few days.  Most people who keep these frogs raise their own fruit flies by purchasing pre-made cultures or commercial culture media or by making their own media with a base of .  New fruit fly cultures will need to be started at least once a week and need to be kept at a moderate temperature (around 70 - 75 F) to be successful.   Young froglets do best if food is available daily; I feed my older frogs every two to three days depending on the time of year and a other factors.  It is important to dust the fruit flies with a high quality supplement. If they do not receive adequate calcium, these frogs quickly show serious health problems and usually die or exhibit various deformations. I use Repashy Calcium Plus every time I feed them replaced once per month with the Repashy vitamin A supplement and once with their Supervite.  

    Other insects can be raised in smaller quantities to provide variety. Springtails and small isopods can be raised and added to tanks both to clean up organic matter in the substrate and to be eaten on occasion as the frogs find them. Springtails are cultured as the primary food for the tiny froglets of Ranitomeya and Oophaga and can be a good way to help froglets of all the other genera get started as well. Rice flour and bean beetles can make a good supplement or emergency backup to fruitflies but have the potential to become pests in human food if they get out and have a hard exoskeleton that makes them unsuitable as the primary diet for these frogs.



FAQs:


Can I mix a number of species to get an attractive display like a fish tank?   


  Mixing species is almost never a good idea.  In the past I raised froglets of the same genus together without incident, but long term one form usually fails to thrive and eventually dies when they are mixed. Additionally, most will only breed in pairs and unless the intent is to hybridize them (a practice strongly frowned upon by most of the hobby) breeding is unlikely to occur with two species in the same genus present.

  Keeping members of different genera together may address some of the territoriality/aggression issues, but usually leads to one species doing poorly or remaining hidden.  For example, I have seen people try to combine Phyllobates bicolor with various Dendrobates species and the Phyllobates have never survived long.

  Mixing these with other types of amphibians is strongly discouraged because of disease transmission and predation issues.  Tiny geckos may work, but only those that stay tiny and can take high humidity/low ventilation.  I once had a very small day gecko damage a much larger tinctorius’ toe by trying to eat it, so only mix them with a great deal of caution and have another terrarium ready for the second species if it doesn’t work out.


If I have a large tank, can I ignore the guidelines for group size you mentioned above?


  For those species  which maintain territories (all of the Dendrobates and Oophaga and most Ranitomeya), the smallest wild territory size I have seen mentioned in the literature is 3 square meters.  In most instances much larger territories are maintained.  So to mimic the size of one frog’s territory in the wild would require a tank approximately 5 by 6 feet or to keep two frogs of the same gender which would be competing for territory in your tank it would need to be at least eight by eight feet and probably much larger.  Even the largest tanks don’t come close to being able to hold multiple territories of those frogs which defend them.  So even in a 90, 120 or 300 gallon tank, long-term breeding success with these frogs (and for tinctorius and pumilio keeping them alive over the long term) will mean that no more than one pair is kept.  Those which will breed when kept in groups such as Phyllobates and Epipidobates can be kept in large groups in such larger tanks and make a really interesting display as individuals interact with others of their species throughout an elaborate habitat.


I have worms or mites in my tank.  What should I do to get rid of them?


   Nothing is usually necessary.  Nematode worms can be harmful parasites, but evidence of the parasitic species cannot usually be seen with the naked eye.  Soil dwelling nematodes are commonly found in terraria and are often seen crawling all over frog feces, dead insects or even dead frogs but have usually come out of the soil to attack this food source, not from inside the frog.  Most of these are beneficial to the tank and are not detrimental to the frogs.

   On the other hand, if frogs are not putting on weight when being fed well or other symptoms suggest internal parasites are present, veterinary advice should be sought for appropriate remedies.  This is one of the main things that can make it so difficult to keep frogs which have been imported from their natural habitats, exposed to wild-caught amphibians or raised in unsanitary conditions and why it is important to get frogs from good sources.

     I have never seen frogs infested with mites.  However plants, soil and fruit fly cultures often can be.  These small mites will be eaten by most denrobatids and will not usually become a problem in their tanks.

    Mold that grows on new branches or other decor usually goes away soon,  misting it directly often helps.

    

My fruit fly cultures are infected with mold or mites what can I do about it?


  To prevent mold, add mold inhibitors to media that does not already contain them.  I use vinegar as it makes the cultures more acidic and seems to keep mold down without affecting the flies.  I have tried Calcium proprionate, methyl paraben and methylene blue, but found them unnecessary for me.   Adding plenty of flies is important as media which does not get turned over and used by the fly larvae will be likely to start molding.  I add approximately 1 teaspoon of flies per one-quart size culture jar.  Only a few flies as are added to the tiny cultures used in scientific research are often not enough to get the larger cultures needed for feeding frogs started.

    In my experience mold is often a symptom of a culture failing for other reasons and not the cause of its failure.  Check that the cultures are not becoming too warm or too cool, that enough flies are added to produce adequate larvae to keep the media turned over, and that the cultures are not too wet or too dry. Hydei cultures are especially sensitive to temperature and must be kept in the 70-80o F range to be successful.

    Mites are more difficult, I have them in most of my fruit fly cultures, but they stay under control until the fruit flies start dying out and are not usually a huge problem.  It is best to only start new cultures only from those which have just begin to produce flies, avoid starting new cultures from  those which have any mites and buy initial cultures from a reputable source which advertises them as being mite-free.



I don’t want to raise fruit flies, what else can I feed them?


    Pretty much nothing that’s easier to get or raise than Drosophila.  Pinhead crickets work , but as mentioned above these are very expensive to buy and usually much harder to breed than fruit flies.  Adults of the larger Phyllobates and Ameerga species will take ¼” crickets, but buying CB adult frogs is very expensive, if they can be found  at all, so you usually have to raise fruit flies until they are larger and will need to keep raising the Drosophila if you intend to breed them.  Turkestan (and other) roaches that hatch small looked like they could work, but when I tried them they hid too well and were rarely eaten by the frogs, even by those that take larger sized prey. Springtails, isopods, bean beetles and others make good supplements, but are too small or too chitinous to be the sole diet for most of these species.


Do you sell fruit fly cultures?


    I don’t usually sell fruit flies for a few reasons.  First, I usually need all that I produce and often supplement what I am able to raise by buying crickets for the frogs that will take them.  Second my cultures are often infested with mites and if I could start over I would do so with cleaner cultures.  Third, my media recipe has worked very well at producing a lot of  flies for me, but my flies and media often haven’t worked for other people under their conditions and it smells pretty bad by the time the cultures are winding down compared to some other recipes.


How do you come up with your prices?


    I believe my prices are very fair for what I am selling.  Unlike many of the dealers and sometimes breeders which advertise the very lowest prices, I do not sell tiny froglets which are just out of the water, but put at least 4-6 months and often longer into raising frogs before I sell them.  When I buy frogs for myself, I gladly pay significantly more for such well-started animals.  Not every froglet makes it through its first few months and the stress of moving or shipping them, changing their habitats, missing feedings or otherwise not maintaining optimal conditions can be especially hard on small froglets.   Those which are ⅓ to ½ grown tend to do much better for me and I try to raise them to a larger size before selling them because I want all of the frogs I sell to do well for their new owners.  To allow me to keep as broad a range of frogs available as possible, my prices reflect the number of each frog I have available not only the national market price for that  variety.  I will give a quantity discounts at times when I have a lot of a certain species, but if I don’t have many of a particular form, I will usually set the price a little higher and may not be able to give any discounts.



For more information:


This is intended as only a brief overview to help you determine if you can meet the basic needs of these frogs.  Before getting any dendrobatids, I strongly recommend that you look at some or all of the following resources:


Black Jungle and Josh's Frogs both have websites that contain a lot of good information on the basics of keeping these frogs including how-to videos. Both also sell many terrarium related supplies and frogs. I would start with these as online sources before trying the forums that often come up in online searches. Another site worth checking out is dendrobase.de it is in German, but has a huge amount of well-organized information than anything in English and worth trying to use in a translated version.


Poison Dart Frogs (Complete Herp Care) by Amanda Sihler and Greg Sihler

The best basic book on these frogs out there now.  This is written in the US by experienced hobbyists and available as an inexpensive ebook. It seems to be out of print as a physical book. The other inexpensive paperback books on poison dart frog care are poor sources in my opinion.

Poison Frogs (Professional Breeders Series) by Wolfgang Schmidt and Wilhelm Henkel

This is a somewhat more comprehensive and expensive look at these frogs (used to be about $40, it looks like it may be out of print now). It covers many more details about the care of these frogs and covers the care of many more species.  This has been translated from German and refers to some materials and practices more common in Europe than in the US.


Poison Frogs: Biology, Species & Captive Husbandry by Stefan Lotters, Karl-Heinz Jungfer, Friedrich Wilhelm Henkel and Wolfgang Schmidt

Not cheap ($130), but well worth it, this is the most comprehensive book written on these frogs to date.  It covers a huge amount of information on their natural history and care and extensively covers most all of the species that are of potential interest. As with the title above it is translated from German and reflects a European viewpoint on terrarium keeping.


Poison Arrow Frogs: their Natural History and Care in Captivity by Ralf Heselhaus.

This is  an older work and may be  less useful now than some other sources now, but this is what got me started in the hobby and the methods it described have worked well for me for many years.



©2005-2012 Adam Rees