Poison Dart / Arrow Frogs (PDF)

“Jewels of the forests” – That is what these creatures have been called and this is truly the case! My experience with Poison Dart Frogs (PDF’s) has been exciting, rewarding, heartbreaking, and all other emotions you can think of! My passion for these spectacular amphibians started just over 2 years ago, when I walked into a shop and I had a glance at Dendrobates Auratus (Costa Rica) – better known as the Green and Black PDF. The “gogga” bit and it bit HARD! – I had to pay a pretty penny for them and didn’t know anything about keeping amphibians, let alone PDF’s. It must have been the extraordinary colors that captivated me!

Although PDF’s are not readily available in South Africa, they have taken a special place in my heart! Overseas hobbyists classify PDF’s as some of the best kept amphibians in terrariums and this is due to their attractive appearance and highly interesting behaviors.

I have only had the pleasure of keeping:

Dendrobates:    Auratus (Costa Rica – Green and Black, Panama – Blue and Black)

Dendrobates auratus
Dendrobates auratus (Costa Rica – Green and Black)
Dendrobates auratus
Dendrobates auratus (Panama – Blue and Black)

Azureus (Blue with black spots)

Dendrobates azureus
Dendrobates azureus

Leucomelas (Bumble Bee – Black and yellow banded)

Dendrobates leucomelas
Dendrobates leucomelas

Tinctorius (Dyeing – normally yellow and black body with blue legs)

Dendrobates tinctorius
Dendrobates tinctorius


Phyllobates:     Bicolor (Intense Orange or Yellow with olive green legs)

Dendrobates phyllobates
Dendrobates phyllobates

The problem with keeping PDF’s is that little information is available to you on distribution, habitat, husbandry, sexing, breeding etc. (even on the internet!!!!)

I explored EVERY possible site and every article/magazine I could lay my hands on, but most of the information was conflicting in some way or other – especially relating to sexing and breeding these jewels!


I have to say – SIMPLE worked for me! I decided to use the simplest information available to me at that point in time, in order to keep my PDF’s alive and well! I stayed away from anything I thought could be toxic to my PDF’s i.e. materials containing fertilizers / paint / chemicals etc. – and I still stick to this rule today!


PDF’s are known for their highly effective toxicity. Their skin secretions are manufactured and discharged by microscopic glands. The major function of their toxicity may be presumed to make them inedible to their predators, but may also work as an “antibiotic” to keep bacteria, viruses and fungi away from their skin. The moist and warm climate that PDF’s thrive in is an ideal breading ground for microorganisms such as bacteria.

Keeping this in mind, if they can secrete through their skin, they surely are able to absorb through the skin…It has been said that toxicity diminishes in captivity, however, I don’t handle my breeding collection, for the simple fact that I have no idea where they come from! Captive bred juveniles, I will however handle, if my hands have been washed with dechlorinated water.

In the wild, the toxin secreted by certain species of PDF’s is known as batrachotoxin, and has turned out to be one of the most toxic natural substances known to man. This toxin is found in most PDF’s but the species that carries a deadly amount is Phyllobates Aurotaenia. Phyllobates bicolor and terribilis have also been tested for their high toxicity levels.


If you want your animals to do well you should remember the following:

  • Keep your temperature as constant as possible
  • Keep HIGH humidity levels at all times
  • Keep away from anything containing harmful toxins / chemicals
  • Keep them at ease at all times

This is what I did for over a year – until my first PDF’s started calling – (mating behavior). I needed to learn more about these amphibians but could not lay my hands on ANY good material in South Africa. I ended up paying 53 dollars for a book I ordered over the internet – AND THIS WAS THE ONE! Professional Breeders Series: Poison Frogs by W. Schmidt & F.W. Henkel. By the time I acquired this book, my original collection from 3 D.Auratus had grown to:

7 D.Auratus (Costa Rica) (Green and Black PDF)

3 D.Tinctorius (Dyeing PDF)

5 D.Azureus – Which I ALL lost and I still don’t know why!

5 D. Auratus (Panama) (Blue and Black PDF)

4 D.Leucomelas (Bumble Bee PDF)

4 P. Bicolor

A TOTAL NUMBER OF 28 of which I currently still have 23. This number excludes the juveniles that I bred successfully and kept back in order to expand my breeding colonies. As I said, I have experienced an immense amount of heartbreak by keeping PDF’s but the rewards have definitely overshadowed it! If you are thinking of adding PDF’s to your collection, here is some basic information to keep your amphibians alive and well:


Make sure that your cage is ready BEFORE you buy them!

Ideal Poison Dart Frog setup!
Ideal Poison Dart Frog setup!

PDF’s are either groundwellers, arborial (tree-dwellers) or need flowing water to trigger their reproductive behavior. The most common poison dart frogs, from the Dendrobates family, are all groundwellers. When setting up your terrarium for ground dwellers, you will need the following:

  • A water proof tank that keeps a high humidity and is escape-proof!
  • A large ground surface
  • An aquatic section with a filtering pump
  • Gravel of different sizes to build sloping banks – sterilized and washed with boiling water.
  • Drift wood for decorative purposes
  • LIVE PLANTS for elevated spaces in your tank that can grow hydroponically.

Eg. Bromeliads (without thorns), Amazon lilies, Orchids, Philodendron, small ferns

  • Sphagnum moss and coco peat for your top layer.
  • A Coconut
  • Petri dishes
  • Feeding bowl.
  • UVB 2.0
  • Dusting Powder – T-Rex Treefrog Dust
  • Hygro- and Thermometer
  • Rainmaker / misting bottle.
  • Start by identifying an area in the tank that will be the aquatic section / pond. – I have been using “biorock” to create my pond area and it has worked extremely well!
  • Now create your flowing water feature by using a sterilized peace of driftwood or larger pieces of gravel. (If you want a built-in water feature, use marine silicone and let it cure for at least 1 week before constructing your tank further) – There should be NO smell in the tank.
  • Place your filtering pump at the bottom of the tank and start building from the bottom up, using sterilized, large-sized gravel initially.
  • Remove your plants from their containers, and wash thoroughly under running water. Do not leave any compost on your plants.
  • Place the plants in position
  • Continue to build your ground surface by using sterilized, smaller and smaller sized gravel.
  • Ensure that your filtering pump is COMPLETELY COVERED by the gravel in order to avoid your PDF’s from being sucked in!
  • Make sure that the top layer of gravel is the smallest size you can find but big enough that an adult frog can’t ingest it!
  • Although PDF’s do not “swim” they do like to spend time in the pond. Ensure that all gaps inside the pond and in the tank are filled with gravel in order to avoid them from climbing into these small spaces and getting stuck.
  • Continue by identifying a feeding spot. Put the feeding bowl in place and cover the area around it with coco peat. (NOT SPIDER PEAT) – The reason for the bowl is to create a central feeding area. By doing this you are able to view all your PDF’s and ensure that they are in optimum health.
  • Cover additional ground space with sphagnum moss or coco peat
  • Ensure all lids / sliding windows on your tank are escape-proof – PDF’s are extremely advanced climbers and will easily climb up the side of the tank!
  • Connect your UVB light (2.0) and your filtering pump.
  • Let the tank run for 3 days in order for you to monitor temperature and humidity.

The PDF set-ups are by far one of the most attractive terrariums you may ever build. Do not be afraid to spend a couple of bucks to create a real rainforest for your jewels. You will reap the rewards!!


Day:     Not higher than 26ºC

Night:  Not lower than 21ºC


80 – 100% constantly.


Water quality is extremely important when keeping PDF’s. You have to maintain and keep quality water in the tank. The filtering pump will ensure that water doesn’t become stagnant and the gravel will aid as a natural filter. Normal tap water should do, if you let it de-chlorinate for 48 hours. In addition to this, use a water conditioner i.e. “Exo-terra Aquatize”. For misting purposes use the “Exo-terra Mistimize” – The tank should be misted thoroughly at least one a day. If your PDF’s are ready to breed, introduce a more frequent misting schedule. This seems to get the juices flowing!


Now this is a bugger! – It is extremely hard to sex PDF’s and normally you can only take an educated guess of who is who! No primary sexual organs are visible from the outside! It is therefore recommended to raise several specimens simultaneously from which breeding pairs / groups can be selected at a later stage. PDF’s take quite some time to mature sexually. First eggs can be expected at the age of roughly one and a half years, if the conditions are right. Do not expect a miracle the first time you discover eggs, it takes a couple of tries for them to perfect it! Dendrobates tinctorius however only become sexually mature at the age of roughly two to two and a half years. Males in most cases are slightly smaller and more angular whilst females are bigger and more voluminous.

The most viable way of sexing would be to take a hard look at the PDF’s fingertips. Males have distinctly larger toe pads compared to females – but you will only be able to observe this once your PDF’s are adults – Also, this rule of thumb may only be accurate in identifying sexes of some species.

  • REMEMBER: PDF’s are very territorial. Make sure that your tank is of sufficient size and has enough “hiding” spots in order to ensure that some specimens don’t succumb to dominance.


When your PDF’s are of decent age and are in good health, you can start by introducing egg deposition sites. Ensure that you set up more than one deposition site in your tank, so that the male can choose the most suitable one!

  • REMEMBER: PDF’s can reproduce throughout the year as long as optimum health, temperature, humidity and water quality is kept constant.

You can use a Petri dish and a halved coconut shell. Ensure that all the coconut has been removed from the shell and that you have sterilized it with boiling water. Cut a small entrance into the shell and place the Petri dish underneath.

Ensure that the Petri dish is moist but not wet!

Reproducing throughout the year does, however, not mean that they will continue to produce clutches at regular intervals. They will insert breaks of sometimes considerable duration, or may show a certain reproductive period that may be linked to seasons, temperatures or humidity levels. Exact studies providing information on individual spawning seasons in nature is still not available!

Courtship is usually initiated by the males. They will choose an elevated area in the terrarium to “call’ in an attempt to lure the females. If the female appears, the male will try to impress her by calling more often and raising his body. The male will then approach the female and take her to the egg deposition site. With D. Tinctorius (Dyeing PDF) the female will continuously stroke the back of the male and she will lure him to the egg deposition site.

Eggs are laid and are only fertilized by the male afterwards. This external fertilization process makes it difficult to record a 100% success rate in clutches.


Clutches may vary. Dendrobates have clutches of between 1 – 10 eggs (The biggest clutch I have recorded was 6). Phyllobates however can produce clutches of 10 – 30 eggs at a time. In extreme cases, clutches of up to 50 eggs has been recorded.


The experts urge you to leave the clutches of eggs as is, until the tadpoles are ready to emerge, but I have experienced that clutches “disappear”. Females will readily consume egg clutches that do not belong to them!

It is believed that in nature, the males “water” the clutches and that the female gently rub the eggs with her backside. It is also believed that she urinates on the eggs to prevent fungal infections as well as “encourage” them to break free.

Fungal infections are prone in developing eggs. The egg will turn from a dark grey to a lighter grey and will almost look as if it has “exploded”. Remove these eggs from the clutch immediately with a blunt edged spoon to avoid them infecting the rest of the clutch.


Remove the clutch of eggs and use a syringe to add a few drops of water to the clutch. Close it with at tight fitting lid in order to create high humidity for development. Add water to the clutch of eggs at least once a day (only a few drops) – the water level should NEVER cover the eggs completely. Keep the closed container in the tank. This way you will ensure that the eggs are kept at a constant temperature and that the necessary lighting is provided. This aids in the development of the eggs.

Once you have your clutch of eggs and you are maintaining it, you will visibly see the development of the tadpole. It takes approx. 12 – 15 days for the embryo to develop into a tadpole. Although the embryos are surrounded by a jelly-like mass, the shells seem to be tough and the tadpoles struggle to break fee. As soon as the tadpole is fully formed – normally 13 days- I gently pierce the jelly like mass with a needle in order to create an exit point. Be very careful when you do this, that you don’t hurt the tadpole in the process. Then leave nature to take its course.

Fill the Petri dish with water for the tadpole to swim freely once it exits. Once the tadpole has emerged, place it in a separate container.


I use a 50/50 ratio of water for rearing the tadpoles:

50% Stagnant water with a water conditioner and

50% Cooled off boiled water at a certain temperature.

The reason for this is that tadpoles, as well as the developing eggs, are prone to fungal infections and this combination has worked extremely well for me. Tadpoles are reared separately due to their cannibalistic nature and the water is changed every second day. Enough food for one feeding session is supplied only in order to aid in keeping water quality up. At roughly 45 – 50 days old, the hind legs start developing and soon the front legs follow. The tadpole will now start coming to the surface to take in atmospheric air. This is due to the fact that the aquatic gills develop into lungs to prepare them for their life on land. This is classified as one of the largest metamorphoses animals undergo. In addition to this, their entire digestive system is reshaped to handle the food consumed by land-living frogs and their skin thickens.

Start reducing the water in the container so that the little frog-let won’t drown. At about 58 days when the front legs are clearly visible, use a ball of press-stick and place it underneath one side of the container. This will create a dry and wet area to ensure that the frog-let can exit the water when it wants to.

Towards the end of their metamorphosis, the tadpoles cease to feed, as they start absorbing their tails. For this period they will live off the nutrients liberated by this re-absorption.


PDF’s struggle to consume large prey items. From the word go, I stick to pinhead crickets. I also rear my own fruit flies as this “drosophila” is taken almost instantly by juvenile frog-lets. Once the tail has completely disappeared, move the frog-let to a mini terrarium and introduce prey. They might not accept prey immediately. Keep on introducing prey every 2nd day. They will eventually take it!

Feeding takes place every 2nd day and the prey items are dusted with T-Rex Treefrog dust. The dust not only contains calcium, but also phosphates that these amphibians need to promote health.


The actual lifespan of PDF’s in captivity is unknown. Dendrobates tinctorius have, however, recorded a total of 25 years in captivity. Should you decide to add these beautiful creatures to your collection, you should realize that they will form part of it for quite some time!


Poison Dart Frogs are the highlight to our collection. I will not recommend them to beginners, but if you have the persistence and will dedicate some time to get the basics right, they are very easy to keep.

The rewards of having that first frog-let leave the water cannot be described in words. I will classify PDF’s as one of the best amphibians to keep and looking at the declining numbers of PDF’s in the wild, more of us should assume responsibility to preserve these jewels for many generations to come.


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