How Colombian Indians took the Terrible Poison Frog as ammunition to new shores

It is regarded as the most poisonous vertebrate on Earth: Phyllobates terribilis, the Terrible Poison Frog. Its home lies in the rain-rich forests on the Pacific coast of Colombia, and its name was adopted for an entire frog family: the poison frogs. Native Indians used to use its skin toxin to prep their blow darts. Measuring a mere 5 cm, the poison of a single individual of these frogs would be enough to kill 20,000 mice or ten humans if it entered the bloodstream or mucous membranes. It is a neurotoxin that will paralyse the respiratory system and muscles within seconds.

Its distribution range is actually restricted to the region along the Rio Saija. Surprisingly,Carlos Galvis, Head Curator of the Cali Zoo, found another population of the poisonous dwarf much farther to the north. On an expedition to the delta of the Rio Naya, he discovered an isolated population of Phyllobates terribilis on a small island. The scientist found himself faced with an enigma: How did these poison frogs arrive on this island? Carlos Galvis eventually obtained a clue from interviews conducted in the village of Joaquincito: “The Indigenas always utilized these frogs for acquiring food, that means for hunting. It is therefore quite conceivable that their ancestors simply brought some frogs along from their old homeland.”

In a recently started research project, funded by Zurich Zoo, Carlos Galvis and his team of Cali Zoo want to find out more about the P. terribilis-population of Joaquincito and its heritage.

The inhabitants of Joaquincito form part of the nation of Eperara-Siapidara Indians. This group originated from farther south, or more exactly, from the region along the Rio Saija. There, they used to live mainly off their hunting – with the help of the poison from the Terrible Poison Frog. The first families then started migrating north nearly a hundred years ago in a quest to find new land to settle in. In order to survive here from the proceeds of their hunting efforts, they obviously required ammunition. It would therefore be plausible if they brought a few specimens of this frog along and released them on the island for them to multiply and provide the necessary ammunition ever after. Genetic analyses will be required to shed light on this matter, but if it proved true, it would be an extraordinary instance of dispersal of a highly toxic animal through human activities.

Out now: Video-Report Toxic Midgets of Colombia

This Frogs & Friends video documentary covers the joint-project expedition by Frogs & Friends (an Amphibian Survival Alliance Partner), Zurich Zoo, Cali Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society Colombia and Parques nationales naturales de Colombia in a lot of aspects:five chapters and several additional content elements give an insight in an outstanding amphibian conservation effort. ->

By Björn Encke
Frogs & Friends

Photo: The Terrible Poison Frog. Photo: Björn Encke | © Frogs & Friends