Poisonous Frogs, Beetles, and Birds

by Joseph DeSisto

Meet the golden poison frog of Colombia’s coastal rain forests. This frog, one of nearly 200 species of poison frogs, is by far the most toxic. A single frog packs enough poison to kill 10,000 mice, or 10 or more humans (Myers et al. 1978).

The golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis). Photo by Brian Gratwicke, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis). Photo by Brian Gratwicke, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

For the golden poison frog and its close relatives in the genus Phyllobates, batrachotoxin is the weapon of choice. Batrachotoxin acts on the nervous system, opening up the membranes of nerve cells so they can no longer carry signals to and from the brain. Death comes from paralysis, which leads to heart failure.

The golden poison frog was only discovered in 1971 when scientists found them around an indigenous Colombian (Emberá Chocó) village (Myers et al. 1978). The Emberá use the frogs to lace poison darts, with which they hunt game in the surrounding forest. The frog-handlers were careful to cover their hands with leaves, with good reason. Scientists who touched the frog felt a strong burning sensation, and they stressed in their initial description that:

The new species is potentially dangerous to handle: One freshly caught frog may contain up to 1900 micrograms (µg) of toxins, only a fraction of which would be lethal to man if enough skin secretion came into contact with an open wound.”(Myers et al. 1978, pp. 311)

The black-legged poison frog (Phyllobates bicolor), closely related to terribilis but not quite as toxic. Photo by Drriss and Marrionn, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The black-legged poison frog (Phyllobates bicolor), closely related to terribilis but not quite as toxic. Photo by Drriss and Marrionn, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

It is important, as the frog’s discoverers remind us, “to be cautionary, not alarmist” (Myers et al. 1978, pp. 340). Even though in theory these frogs are dangerous, there is no record of a person ever being killed by one. Although the poison can go through a person’s skin, it seldom does so in enough quantity to injure. The frogs do not bite. So if you see golden poison frogs while exploring in Colombia, do not panic, but be wary. However delicious and lemon-drop-colored they may seem, definitely don’t try eat them.

Golden poison frogs are sometimes sold in the pet trade, since they lose their poison after being taken out of the wild. This is probably because frogs get batrachotoxin from their food: soft-winged beetles that make the toxin themselves (Dumbacher et al. 2004). In captivity, frog-keepers give their pets a blander diet of crickets and fruit flies, which don’t contain batrachotoxin.

An example of a soft-winged beetle, in the same family as those eaten by poison frogs. Photo by Udo Schmidt, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

An example of a soft-winged beetle, not the same species, but in the same family as those eaten by poison frogs. Photo by Udo Schmidt, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Soft-winged beetles are found all over the world, especially in the tropics, but so far only a few other animals are known to eat them and use their batrachotoxins. Three of these are poison frogs, all found in a small rain forest region of Colombia. The others are birds. Yes, there are poisonous birds, and even though this blog is explicitly not about birds or mammals, I’m going to break that rule today.

The hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) -- both males and females are brightly colored. Photo by Katerina Tvardikova, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

The hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) — both males and females are brightly colored. Photo by Katerina Tvardikova, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

The toxic birds are all found in New Guinean rain forests, and most belong to a group of insect-eaters called pitohius (pronounced PI-to-hooies). Pitohui birds are related to the orioles and blackbirds found in more temperate climes. Shown above is the hooded pitohui, first found to be poisonous when a bird researcher handled one and left with a tingling, burning sensation in his hand.

Later study showed that the hooded pitohui, along with two other related species, has feathers laced with batrachotoxins (Dumbacher et al. 1992). More than a decade later, the same scientists demonstrated that toxin-wielding pitohui birds eat soft-winged beetles, and that these same beetles are loaded with batrachotoxin (Dumbacher et al. 2004). Despite being toxic, the birds are not nearly as dangerous as golden poison frogs, and there is little risk to a careful handler.

The variable pitohui (Pitohui kirhocephalus), not as showy as its cousin, but toxic all the same. Photo by Katerina Tvardikova, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

The variable pitohui (Pitohui kirhocephalus), not as showy as its hooded cousin, but toxic all the same. Photo by Katerina Tvardikova, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Several more birds are now known to use batrachotoxins, and all are found in New Guinea (Weldon 2000). Many of them have similar red-and-black color patterns. By having similar colors, multiple bird species can work together to “educate” predators who might not be aware of the poisonous feathers (Dumbacher and Fleischer 2001). To make matters even more interesting, the toxins in bird feathers apparently serve as a repellent to parasitic lice (Dumbacher 1999).

We may continue to learn more about these amazing birds and their lives, or we may not. Most of these birds are becoming rarer and rarer as New Guinean rain forest is slashed and burnt, tilled and grazed into nothing.

I’ve written several articles about poisons and venoms: click here to learn about brown recluse venom and here to learn about tetrodotoxin, a poison used by many fish as well as newts, snails, and blue-ringed octopuses.

Darren Naish, writer of the superb science blog Tetrapod Zoology, writes often about birds. Click here for one of his articles on a poisonous New Guinean species. Note that the article is not on his most recent blog site, which is updated regularly at the first link to Scientific American.

To learn more about the relationship between lice and toxic pitohui birds, click here to read an excellent article by Bianca Boss-Bishop on the aptly-named blog Parasite of the Day.

Cited:

Dumbacher J.P. 1999. Evolution of toxicity in Pitohuis: I. effects of homobatrachotoxin on chewing lice (order: Phthiraptera). The Auk, 116: 957-963.

Dumbacher J.P., A. Wako, S.R. Derrickson, A. Samuelson, and T.F. Spande. 2004. Melyrid beetles (Choresine): a putative source for the Batrachotoxin alkaloids found in poison-dart frogs and toxic passerine birds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 101(45): 15857-15860.

Dumbacher J. P., B.M. Beehler, T. F. Spande, H. M. Garra¡o, and J.W. Daly. 1992. Homobatrachotoxin in the genus Pitohui: chemical defense in birds? Science 258: 799-801.

Dumbacher J.P. and R.C. Fleischer. 2001. Phylogenetic evidence for colour pattern convergence in toxic pitohuis: Müllerian mimicry in birds? Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 268(1480): 1971-1976.

Myers C.W., J.W. Daly, and B. Malkin. 1978. A dangerously toxic new frog (Phyllobates) used by Emberá Indians of western Colombia, with a discussion of blowgun fabrication and dart poisoning. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 161(2): 311-365.

Weldon P.J. 2000. Avian chemical defense: toxic birds not of a feather. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 97(24): 12948-12949.

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One response to “Poisonous Frogs, Beetles, and Birds

  1. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 02/10/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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