The Terrible One

The Story of a tiny but deadly Creature

By Frogs & Friends

Frogs & Friends

Phyllobates Terribilis: The Terrible One​ (2015) by Björn EnckeFrogs & Friends

There’s a reason the Golden Poison Frog’s scientific name is Phyllobates terribilis - it’s terrifying! Even though it is only approximately five centimeters long, it is thought to be the most poisonous vertebrate on earth. Normally, frogs of its size try to use camouflage to hide from larger predators, but this frog has no need to blend in. Instead, the frogs happily hop around the forest, wearing their bright golden yellow skin as a warning vest to alert other animals about their toxicity so they don’t get too close. ​

A Deadly Cocktail​ (2019) by Björn EnckeFrogs & Friends

A whole cocktail of different deadly toxins can be found on the Golden Poison Frog’s skin, including batrachotoxin and homobatrachotoxin. It is so toxic, in fact, that the poison from just one frog is enough to kill 20,000 mice or ten humans if it enters their bloodstream or mucous membranes. So it’s no wonder, then, that this small but deadly frog has nearly no animal predators. ​Scientists also haven't managed to find an antiserum for this poison.

Indigenous Hunting​ (2015) by Björn EnckeFrogs & Friends

The original population in the area found a way to benefit from these toxins. They prepped their blow darts with the poison by rubbing the tips on the frogs' skin. The poisoned darts made it possible to kill animals even with a simple shot from the side. While the forest nowadays still belongs to the indigenous community, they mostly use safer and more modern rifles for hunting. ​

Dangerous Encounter​ (2015-07-07) by Frogs & FriendsFrogs & Friends

This is Carlos Galvis, Head Curator of the Calí Zoo, who wandered the paths of the Colombian rainforests in 2005 in search of his favorite animals: snakes. Instead, however, he unexpectedly stumbled upon the Golden Poison Frog, and came in contact with the poison. He carefully washed his hands because he knew about the deadly toxins. Nevertheless, he apparently did not get all of it off, because a while later, he felt his face start to go numb. The entire village feared for his life, but fortunately, Carlos survived. ​

Isolated Population​ (2016) by Björn EnckeFrogs & Friends

But what surprised Carlos about this discovery in Joaquincito was the fact that he even discovered a terribilis specimen in this area. To date, the only known distribution areas of the terribilis were by the southern river regions, but he had been much further north when he ran into the poison frogs. This means there was an isolated population on this small, 700 hectare island in the delta of the Rio Naya, separate from the other populations. ​

How did they get there? This isolated population is something of a mystery to him. He suspects the frogs were brought there by indigenas, who migrated to the north in the 1920’s in search of land for agricultural use. They probably wanted to continue to use the frogs’ poison as ammunition for their hunting darts.

Tadpole transportation​ (2017-03-29) by Frogs & FriendsFrogs & Friends

These frogs aren't just known for their poison, but also for their strange feeding behavior. The terribilis mother lays the eggs. Once the tadpoles hatch, their father transports them on his back and arranges them in the water filled leaves of Bromeliad plants. There, he leaves them alone to grow into adult frogs.

Field Research​ (2019) by Björn EnckeFrogs & Friends

Still, Carlos and his team routinely visit the Golden Poison Frogs’ habitat. They want to learn even more about the frogs’ ecology, find out how stable the populations are, and at which density they occur in the forest. They mark each frog they find by implanting a small, coded plastic marker under its skin that can be recognized with a UV light. With this personal 'ID', the scientists can still identify the individual frogs after years and track their movements. This research method is called ‘capture/re-capture’. ​

Human Destruction​ (2019) by Björn EnckeFrogs & Friends

Many amphibians in Colombia, including the Phyllobates terribilis, are facing stress because their habitats are being altered or destroyed by deforestation, logging, agriculture and grazing, and chemicals introduced into nature by humans, such as pesticides, fertilizers, and pollutants. Of the circa 700 species of frogs, toads, and salamanders in Colombia, 200 are endangered. In comparison: all of Europe only has 90 amphibian species! ​

Protecting Species​ (2019) by Björn EnckeFrogs & Friends

Carlos and the citizens of Joaquincito are passionate about conserving the Phyllobates terribilis. On one hand, because they believe that, being the most famous frog in the area, the bright and iconic Golden Poison Frog can serve as an ambassador for future conservation efforts. On the other hand, some indigenous peoples in Columbia still see the terribilis as a cultural artifact. Their ancestors used the frogs as living and renewable hunting ammunition for centuries. While they did not pass this skill on to their descendants, the modern-day indigenas still consider it a part of their culture that they are fighting hard to preserve.

Calí and Zurich to the Rescue! ​ (2017) by Björn EnckeFrogs & Friends

To help the Phyllobates terribilis species survive, the Calí Zoo in Colombia started a cooperation with the Zurich Zoo in Switzerland. The Zurich Zoo has been breeding Golden Poison Frogs successfully for years: in the past two decades, they have raised over 400 of them. To provide genetic diversity over the years, it is important to periodically introduce new terribilis specimens from Colombia, so the continuing collaboration between the two countries is crucial. ​

#CitizenConservation (2019) by Citizen ConservationFrogs & Friends

Frogs & Friends is also committed to saving the Golden Poison Frog. In our captive breeding program Citizen Conservation, private and professional breeders are working together to establish sustainable reserve populations of endangered species in human captivity. CC now wants to include the Golden Poison Frog in the program - but fear not: outside of their natural habitat, the frogs won’t be a danger to their breeders. Since they synthesize their toxins through their food, they aren’t poisonous when bred in a terrarium. Find out more about the program, and how to support it, here:​

Fast Forward Science Video Award​ (2019) by Frogs & FriendsFrogs & Friends

In order to discover the Golden Poison Frog’s natural habitat and the conservation efforts in Colombia, the Frogs & Friends team visited the country in 2016, and, of course, filmed it. You can see the videos on YouTube, which, by the way, won the Fast Forward Science Video Award 2017! ​

Credits: Story

Exhibition by Frogs & Friends

Exhibition curator: Sarah Schorlemmer

Video content origin: Toxic Midgets of Colombia by Frogs & Friends
Written and Directed by Susann Knakowske
Camera: Peter Gröne & Björn Encke
Editor: Ed van Megen

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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