Poison-Dart Frog with Tadpoles on Back

The Life Cycle of a Poison-Dart Frog

Whether you know much about frogs or not, you probably have a decent understanding of the life cycle of an average frog. The fertilized eggs are left in the water. Eventually, the eggs hatch and tadpoles swim around, feeding on algae until they metamorphose into little frogs. Those frogs grow up and go on to reproduce themselves. This isn’t the case for every type of frog but it’s an accurate statement.

The life cycle is different for poison-dart frogs. Their life begins in an egg, as do other tadpoles, but by the time they metamorphose into froglets, they’ve been carried like a backpack, spent some time in a flower, and trekked down a jungle canopy! And that’s just a quick overview. The full story is very interesting. So, let’s get started.

Eggs

The life of a poison-arrow frog begins as an adult female lays her eggs on the ground. Frogs usually lay their eggs in water or attach them to the underside of a plant which is hanging over water; as the eggs hatch, the tadpoles fall into the water. That’s not the case here.

Poison-Dart Frog Eggs
Photo credit: Erik Mattheis / Flickr

The female will lay her eggs in a burrow or sometimes under a leaf. The eggs are in a cluster and have a jelly-like sac surrounding them. All of this happens, of course, after the female has found a proper mate. The process leading up to this is quite entertaining but I’ll go over this at the end of the page. Once the eggs are deposited, the male dart frog takes over…

Fertilization

Once the eggs are deposited, it’s up the male frog to fertilize them. Just to be clear, this process takes place outside of the female’s body; at this point, she is most likely gone. After the eggs are fertilized, the male frog becomes the guardian and protector of his offspring.

This is quite different from most species. Typically, after a male amphibian fertilizes the eggs during amplexus, he takes off – never to be seen again. Not poison-dart frogs!

The father will remain with the eggs until they hatch. At which point the mother returns and the young tadpoles brace themselves for a wild ride.

Tadpoles

Once hatched, the tadpoles wiggle their way on to their mother’s back. Then she takes her tadpoles on a long journey to a safe location where they can transition from tadpoles to froglets and eventually young frogs. The journey will have her carrying her tadpoles to the jungle canopy in search of a bromeliad.

A bromeliad is a tropical plant with lots of color. What makes bromeliads so special is that their leaves are able to hold tiny pools of rainwater. That’s the very reason poison-dart frogs seek these colorful plants; the small pools of water serve as the perfect resting place for the tadpoles.

Bromeliad
Photo credit: Dallas Krentzel / Flickr

Once the mother locates a suitable bromeliad, the tadpoles are placed into their own pool of water between the plant’s leaves. Over the next 6 – 8 weeks, the little tadpoles will feed on mosquito larvae and algae. In addition to this, the mother dart frog give her tadpoles unfertilized eggs to ensure they have enough food.

Did you know? This interesting bit of information is closely related to the life cycle of a poison dart frog; more specifically, the unfertilized eggs that the mother gives to the little tadpoles.

As you already know, poison-arrow frogs are indeed poisonous. They sequester an alkaloid‐based chemical from the food they eat in the wild. Without this toxic food source, they aren’t poisonous. This is why many people keep them as pets.

So, one might assume the tadpoles aren’t poisonous because they’re not big enough to consume the toxic arthropods that allow them to produce the poison. While it may be true that they’re not large enough to eat the arthropods yet, it’s not true that they aren’t poisonous.

You see, their mother is able to pass along the toxin through the unfertilized eggs she gives them as tadpoles. In short, this means that even the tadpoles of poison-dart frogs are poisonous! If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, check out the 2014 study from Ralph Saporito of John Carroll University. Otherwise, let’s get back the life cycle.

As time goes on, the little tadpoles metamorphose into young froglets. They grow legs and their tail disappears. Before long, they’re ready to make their journey back to the jungle floor.

Juvenile & Adult Poison Dart Frogs

After their journey back to the jungle floor, the juvenile dart frogs are ready to begin their life. It takes approximately one year, from start-to-finish, to go from eggs to full-grown adult frogs.

In total, the Dendrobatidae family (poison-dart frogs) contains 13 genera and roughly 170 different species! All of which have different colorations and levels of toxicity.

At this point, you could say the cycle is complete. All that’s left is for the new adult frogs to breed and start the cycle all over again. That is correct but it’s a bit more interesting than that. Dart frogs have some unusual mating rituals…

Bromeliad & Poison-Dart Frog

Mating Season

The rainy season is typically what sparks the mating. The increased rain and warmer temperatures are responsible for the transition. (Captive dart-frogs may need to be cycled in order to get them to breed but that’s a topic for another page.)

During breeding season, the males begin fighting with each other to establish territory. Some poison-dart frogs can be seen waving their arms at each other before engaging in a fight. In some cases, the male frog loses the battle will submit by lower its head or simply hopping away. The fights can be quite intense but once a winner is established, the next part of the process begins.

Last but not least, the victorious male dart-frog begins calling for a female companion by releasing a loud trill. When a male and female meet, they might wave at each other to show they’re interested. If the female is interested she waves back and this entire life cycle begins again!

The female lays the eggs, the males fertilize and protect them, the female carries the tadpoles on her back to a tiny pool of water in a bromeliad plant, and the tadpoles eventually metamorphose into young froglets and make their journey back to the jungle floor.

Conclusion

As you can see, the life cycle of a poison dart frog is far different than that of other frogs. At least the beginning stages. Most eggs are places in ponds, lakes, or streams and stay there during the entire process – not dart frogs. They get protection from their father and ride their mother’s back.

Sure, they survive off algae and mosquito larvae like other tadpoles but they do it from a tiny pool of water in a bromeliad plant. That’s unique! Anyway, I hope this information was helpful to you! Feel free to comment in the section below.

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