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  • Writer's pictureCésar L. Barrio-Amorós CRWild

Why not all poisonous frogs are poison dart frogs (and how to call them correctly)

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

A suggestion about common nomenclature of dendrobatoids*

A passionate debate has been established about the common names used to refer to the different species groups or genera within the family Dendrobatidae (including here the subfamilies Aromobatinae and Dendrobatinae after Santos et al. 2009; 2014, contra full family Aromobatidae sensu Grant et al. 2006, 2017; or a whole Dendrobatoidea).

The popularity of such beautiful creatures made them very attractive to the hobby, and as such, they are nowadays among the best known frogs in the world, both scientifically as by herpetoculturists. The hobby is not linked tightly to taxonomy, and thus, makes their own names, mostly inappropriate, for species, groups of species and morphs. This, however, should not affect scientific nomenclature, but sadly, use and drag with it popular but totally inappropriate appellatives.

Aromobatines have been sometimes named as poison dart frogs (Lynch 1982 for Hyloxalus edwardsi and H. ruizi) and poison frogs (La Marca et al. 2002 for Allobates humilis; Hedges et al. 2019 for Allobates chalcopis, Mannophryne olmonae and M. trinitatis), and Dendrobatines have been called (and still are) with regularity poison-arrow frogs, dart-poison frogs or poison-dart frogs (Silverstone 1973 for Oophaga histrionica; Daly et al. 1978 for many non-Phyllobates species; Ford 1993 for Dendrobatidae sensu lato; Rothmair 1994 for Ameerega trivittata; Summers & Amos 1996 for Ranitomeya ventrimaculata; Grant et al 2006 for all dendrobatoids, and Leenders (2016) poison dart frogs as general for Costa Rican species, just to mention a few). Even the comprehensive treatment of poison frogs (Lötters et al. 2007) fails in describing what a poison frog and a poison dart frog are. So the question is, why name a whole family with a feature that is only common to some species? And why is so popular to name all representatives of Dendrobatidae as poison dart frogs?

As currently understood, only Dendrobatinae sensu stricto (with the following genera after Grant et al. 2006, Twomey & Brown 2008; Brown et al. 2011: Adelphobates, Ameerega, Andinobates, Colostethus, Ectopoglossus, Epipedobates, Excidobates, Hyloxalus, Leucostethus, Minyobates, Oophaga, Paruwrobates, Phyllobates, Ranitomeya, Silverstoneia) includes a majority of toxic species (although Colostethus and Hyloxalus are known to be not toxic, a few species present some toxins: Colostethus panamensis, C. ucumari and the H. azureiventris clade of Grant et al. 2006, including H. azureiventris, H. chlorocraspedus and H. nexipus); thus should commonly be also called poison frogs (but never poison dart or arrow frogs). Myers & Daly (1978) revealed that only a few species of Phyllobates (P. aurotaenia, P. terribilis, P. bicolor) have been used by Emberá indigenous people in Chocoan Colombia to poison their darts (never arrows). So, those would be the only and real poison dart frogs; and for extension, including those Central American species which toxins are not as potent, and never were used to poison darts: P. vittatus and P. lugubris.

The subfamily Aromobatinae (including the following genera: Allobates. Anomaloglossus, Aromobates, Mannophryne, Rheobates and “Prostherapis”), with no toxic species known so far, was named after the giant of the group, the skunk frog Aromobates nocturnus (Myers et al. 1991). In my empiric knowledge, only two other large species of Aromobates (A. leopardalis and A. meridensis) liberate a mercaptanlike odor as a defense, and for that reason, the whole subfamily should not be called Skunk frogs. So, Aromobates, as the majority of species inhabits the cloud forest, could be named Cloud Frogs. A common name for some former Colostethus sensu lato (now in Dendrobatinae sensu stricto) was Rocket frogs (Walls 1994). The meaning (rapid, agile like a rocket) is applicable to the majority of species, and I am comfortable using this name for Colostethus sensu stricto (even if a few species are poisonous), Hyloxalus and Silverstoneia (plus the newly described Leucostethus and Paruwrobates). However, since all species carry their tadpoles on their backs (as well as Dendrobatinae, which already has a more proper comprehensive name, Poison frogs), I propose Nurse frogs as a general name for Aromobatinae. Within Aromobatinae, it is possible to apply already-constituted names for some genera, like Mannophryne, which some species have been already referred as collared frogs. Other genera include Anomaloglossus, created for those Aromobatines with a Median Lingual Process (Grant et al. 1997, 2006) and could be named Lingual frogs. However, recently Anomaloglossus split into a new genus for Trans-Andean species: Ectopoglossus, which are in fact Lingual frogs as well, but in the family Dendrobatidae. In this case can be Western Lingual frogs. Rheobates are not the only riparian Aromobatines, so the name Creek Frogs does not apply exclusively; thus, I am comfortable naming Rheobates, Allobates and in general all species of Aromobatines with no other generic appellatives as Nurse Frogs.

A further issue appears when confronted to the whole family Dendrobatidae. A combined naming of both subfamily (or family) names (no matter here what philosophical current of biology you follow) is not suitable, as “Poison Nurse Frogs” only apply to Dendrobatinae also (as all Dendrobatines are indeed nurse frogs); but the contrary case is not true, as Aromobatines are not poisonous. The original etymological source of the name Dendrobates is not helping either, as “Dendros” means “tree” in Greek, and of course, as all dendrobatid lovers must know, “bates” means “walker”. This name would be appropriate for many species of Ranitomeya, but not anymore for the genus sensu stricto after Grant et al. (2006), because none of the species (D. auratus, D. leucomelas, D. tinctorius –including D. azureus-, D. truncatus) is a strict arboreal species. I suggest naming all the family as suggested unconscientiously by Walls (1994) as Jewel Frogs. It is clear that the name applies for Dendrobatines, but even the usually dull-colored Aromobatines, lacking the bright colors of the Dendrobatines, are indeed small forest jewels, to be respected and protected.


-Brown, J.L., E. Twomey, A. Amézquita, M.B. de Souza, J.P. Caldwell, S. Lötters, R. von May, P.R. Melo-Sampaio, D. Mejía-Vargas, P.E. Pérez-Peña, M. Pepper, E.H. Poelman, M. Sanchez-Rodriguez, and K. Summers. 2011. A taxonomic revision of the Neotropical poison frog genus Ranitomeya (Amphibia: Dendrobatidae). Zootaxa 3083: 1–120. -Daly, J.W., G.B. Brown & M.Mensah-Dwumah. 1978. Classification of skin alkaloids from Neotropical poison-dart frogs. Toxicon 16: 163–188.

-Ford, L. 1994. The phylogenetic position of the dart-poison frogs (Dendrobatidae) among anurans: an examination of the competing hypotheses and their characters. Ethology Ecology & Evolution 5: 219–231.

-Grant, T., E.C. Humphrey & C.W. Myers 1997. The median lingual process of frogs: a bizarre character of old world ranoids disvovered in South American dendrobatids. American Museum Novitates, 3212: 1–40.

-Grant, T., D.R. Frost, J.P. Caldwell, R. Gagliardo, C.F.B. Haddad, P.J.R. Kok, D.B. Means, B.P. Noonan, W.E. Schargel & W.C. Wheeler. 2006. Phylogenetic systematics of dart-poison frogs and their relatives (Amphibia: Athesphatanura: Dendrobatidae). Bulletin American Museum of Natural History 299: 1–262.

-Hedges, S.B., R. Powell, R.W. Henderson, S. Hanson & J.C. Murphy. 2019. Definition of the Caribbean Islands biogeographic region, with checklist and recommendations for standardized common names of amphibians and reptiles. Caribbean Herpetology 67: 1–53.

-La Marca, E., Vences, M. & Lötters, S. 2002. Rediscovery and mitochondrial relationships of the dendrobatid frog Colostethus humilis suggest parallel colonization of the Andes by poison frogs. Studies on Neotropical Fauna and Environment 37 (3): 233–240.

-Grant, T., M. Rada, M. A. Anganoy-Criollo, A. Batista, P.H. dos S. Dias, A.M. Jeckel, D.J. Machado & J.V. Rueda-Almonacid. 2017. Phylogenetic systematics of dart-poison frogs and their relatives revisited (Anura: Dendrobatoidea). South American Journal of Herpetology 12 (Special Issue): 1–90.

-Leenders 2019. Amphibians of Costa Rica, a field guide. Zona Tropical Publication, Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, San José: 531 pp.

-Lötters, S., K.H. Jungfer, F.W.Henkel & W. Schmidt. 2007. Poison Frogs, Biology, Species & Captive Husbandry. Edition Chimaira & Serpents Tale. 668 pp.

-Lynch, J.D. 1982. Two new species of poison-dart frogs (Colostethus) from Colombia. Herpetologica 38: 366–374.

Myers, C.W., J.W. Daly & B. Malkin. 1978. A dangerously toxic new frog (Phyllobates) used by Emberá Indians of western Colombia, with discussion of blowgun fabrication and dart poisoning. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 161:309–365.

-Myers, C.W., A. Paolillo-O. & J.W. Daly. 1991. Discovery of a defensively malodorous and nocturnal frog in the family Dendrobatidae: Phylogenetic significance of a new genus and species from Venezuelan Andes. American Museum Novitates 3002: 1–33.

-Rothmair, M.E. 1994. Male territoriality and female mate selection in the dart-poison frog Epipedobates trivittatus (Dendrobatidae, Anura). Copeia 1994: 107–115.

-Santos J.C, L.A. Coloma, K. Summers, J.P. Caldwell, R. Ree (2009) Amazonian amphibian diversity is primarily derived from late Miocene Andean lineages. PLoS Biol, 7, e1000056. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000056, 1–14.

-Santos, J.C., M. Baquero, C.L. Barrio-Amorós, L.A. Coloma, L.K. Erdtmann, A.P. Lima & D C. Cannatella. 2014. Aposematism increases acoustic diversification and speciation in poison frogs. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 281 (DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1761): 1–9.

-Silverstone, P.A. 1973. Observations on the behaviour and ecology of a Colombian poison-arrow frog, the Koke-Pa (Dendrobates histrionicus Berthold). Herpetologica 29: 295–301.

-Summers, K. & W. Amos. 1996. Behavioral, ecological, and molecular genetic analyses of reproductive strategies in the Amazonian dart-poison frog, Dendrobates ventrimaculatus. Behavioral Ecology 8: 260–267.

-Twomey, E., & J.L. Brown. 2008. Spotted Poison Frogs: rediscovery of a lost species and a new genus (Anura: Dendrobatidae) from northwestern Peru. Herpetologica 64: 121–137.

-Walls, J.G., 1994. Jewels of the rainforest. Poison frogs of the family Dendrobatidae. T.F.H. Neptune City: 288 pp.

*Note: The names suggested herein are not in conflict with the scientific names controlled by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and serve only as intent to prevent the incorrect and improper use of different and arbitrary appellatives.

Published 26 /07/2020


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