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Phyllobates terribilis: Beginner to Intermediate Difficulty

Generally easy frogs due to size and ease of observation, but beginners are warned to get a good handle on controlling humidity, temperature and and dry-out cycles before getting frogs as this species is known to be heat sensitive and more prone to severe bacterial infections if conditions are too wet.

INTRODUCTION

Critical take-aways for long term health include:

• Correct supplementation and storage/replacement of supplements.
• Maintaining acceptable parameters for temperature and relative humidity.
• Allowing this species opportunities for dry perches, to avoid bacterial infections brought
on from constant wetness.
• Liberal use of leaf litter as the frogs are observed to interact with it fully both in captivity
and in situ.

It bears repeating that this species is generally easy to keep, but can be sensitive to being kept too wet with potentially disastrous consequences, and should not be kept (or shipped) at higher temperatures.

ABOUT THIS CARE DOCUMENT

Many dart frog species can live a long time — European breeders report upwards of 20 years! Providing for their long-term health is a commitment.

Keepers are encouraged to observe their frogs carefully and continue to research and talk with experienced froggers. There’s a lot of information on the internet these days, and it takes time to sort the good from the mediocre and outdated — or just plain bad.

You will run into differing opinions, even amongst experienced keepers, but the aim is to keep things simple and stick with what works, in order to avoid the unexpected as much as possible for as long as possible.

There is inevitably someone that will claim they’ve done such and such thing differently for years and never had a problem. While it’s true the frogs are adaptable up to a point and won’t necessarily drop dead if things are done a bit differently, the purpose of this outline is to:

• Prevent common problems.
• Take into account that we’re working with limited space and the aim is to make the best use of that space, while avoiding pitfalls that wouldn’t be as big a deal in the wild, but become a big deal within the confines of captivity.

In short, we want to eliminate variables inside a closed system, which is just a fancy way of saying keep it simple in order to succeed over the long term.

Vivaria change over time, and so does the behaviour of frogs as they age. So what works in the first year may stop working — whether it’s year 2 or year 4. That’s why the emphasis is on long term management.


PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION


Large as far as dart frogs go, these are powerfully built and muscular with relatively broad heads. Some D. tinctorius localities may be larger overall, but P. terribilis are the most heavy-bodied, and may reach 2.1 inches in length as an adult. They display a moderate degree of sexual dimorphism with adult females being larger and heavier than males.

This frog is capable of taking much larger prey than other dendrobatids, providing the keeper with an opportunity to provide a greater variety of prey items.


LOCALITY TYPES

There is some variability within each type in regards to colour saturation, tints and distribution of black pigment, but there are four commonly accepted forms, reported to be geographically separated in their home range by natural barriers. Note that there are anecdotal accounts of the Yellow and Orange forms sharing an overlapping range, but in captivity each type should be kept separately and not mixed or bred with others.

Mint:
Generally the largest form, individuals range from a silvery pale grey that’s almost white, to tints of mint green or even mottled with rust and brown markings to various degrees. Very striking colour in contrast to their prominent black eyes. Small amounts of black pigment are present on the tips of their digits and lips, with variable amounts found elsewhere on the seat and lower belly.

Vertebrate Frog True frog Reptile Organism
Eye True frog Reptile Toad Frog
Reptile Organism Plant Iguania Lizard
Liquid Eye Arthropod Insect Fluid
Arthropod Insect Frog True frog Toad
Head Frog Eye True frog Toad
Nature Leaf Wood Branch Twig
Organism Wood True frog Toad Frog
Organism Reptile Fawn Wood Terrestrial animal
Wood Plant Soil Pattern Rock


Yellow:
While larger specimens (especially females) are encountered, these are often on the smaller side for a P. terribilis, but the difference is negligible and won’t affect the size of enclosure required. The yellow form can be lemon yellow, pale yellow, or even a light orange, with small amounts of black pigment found on the digits, lips and occasionally present on the snout.



Orange:
Similar to the yellow but generally a uniform orange with tiny amounts of black pigment in the usual locations. The limbs are occasionally a slightly lighter hue than the body.


Blackfoot Orange (Also called simply ‘Blackfoot’):
These originated from a captive breeding program initiated by Ivan Lozano of Tesoros de Colombia Sustainable Farm, and as of 2021 are only a few generations removed from their wild ancestors, and due to their recent and fully legal origin, contain the most genetic diversity out of all the localities available to hobbyists.

This is a locality type characterized by a deep pumpkin-orange colour; black pigment often covers their extremities from the wrists and ankles down, as well as beneath their throats, under the upper thighs and occasionally the rump — hence their namesake. Particularly when younger there may be black patches around the eyes and ears, but pigment in these areas is often lost or fades by the time they’re around two years old.

Their appearance remains variable, with some individuals lacking the black pigment and displaying a more golden-orange colour; the black feet may also present as a mottled grey upon close inspection. They may display a very slightly sharper, more streamlined snout than other terribilis forms but the difference is negligible, and don’t get as large as Mints.

Rumours persist of a ‘Blackfoot Yellow’ locality type, but until proven otherwise from the source, this most likely originated due to natural phenotypic variation within the ‘Blackfoot Orange’ line from Tesoros.

The author has encountered verified Tesoros line Blackfoots producing both orange and ‘yellow’ froglets from the same clutch. Note that the ‘yellow’ produced is more of a very pale orange and different from the lemon yellow seen in the true ‘Yellow’ locality type described earlier.

Contrary to erroneous articles and rumour, the Blackfoots offered by Tesoros de Colombia is a true locality type and has not been selectively bred for this appearance.

Note that these are general guidelines in that there is some phenotypic variation within each locality type regarding colour, build and bone structure, e.g. not all Blackfoots have sharper snouts than all Mints. Little things like this make it important to pinpoint the origin of the frogs you’re getting and to keep them labelled correctly to maintain distinct populations within the hobby.


BUYING FROGS

Don’t buy very young froglets. They should be at least 3-4 months out of water, by which time they’ve usually lost most of their striped baby pattern. Young frogs should be presenting good weight and actively hunting, with no obviously protruding bones. Rear legs especially should be plump and muscular; they won't be huge on froglets, but should be nice and proportional.

Have their housing set up and tested at least a week or so beforehand so there are no surprises.


HOUSING & ENVIRONMENT

P. terribilis are larger dart frogs and can be quite athletic provided they aren’t overfed. Contrary to popular belief, they do climb — although not as much as other dart frogs — so spaces to do so should be provided.

While not as agile and gracile as some other species, specimens at a healthy weight will climb semi-regularly, especially if they’re hunting, and their powerful musculature enables startling speed and long jumps. All factors to take into account when designing an enclosure.

Larger tanks make for a better experience both for the frogs and for the keeper in terms of opportunities to see interesting behaviour; a 36” x 18” footprint is a good size for up to four adults.

If you have to choose, a longer tank is better than taller, given the way this species moves, but bigger is almost always better and a tank lower than 24” high is not recommended for adults, and even sub-adults should have at least a 30” long tank so they can exercise their long leaps and maintain a comfortable distance from other frogs when need be. As will be touched on later, bullying can be an issue and the dimensions of a tank are just one of the factors used to avoid this scenario.

It’s sometimes preferable to keep younger frogs in smaller vivaria as it’s easier to monitor their health and development, but be aware that they will outgrow their starter enclosure within a few short months. Be prepared!

Front opening tanks — Exo Terra or Euro-style vivaria — are the most convenient to work in from the keeper’s standpoint, although many pre-fabricated terrariums on the market need to be modified for proper dart frog husbandry.

Keepers are advised to research and fact-check thoroughly to design an effective enclosure that provides adequate space, drainage, ventilation, relative humidity and temperature control, all of which are critical for long term health of the frogs.

When furnishing the tank, keep in mind these are frogs that lunge and attack prey with gusto, and may not look before they leap — so avoid jagged or pointy surfaces, and skip the plants with thorns or spines as they can easily injure themselves. Likewise, don’t place hard objects like rocks directly beneath branches or vines which the frogs have the potential to fall from.

Landing on a bouncy layer of thick leaf litter isn’t a problem, hitting a stone or similar can result in scrapes, sprains, dislocations or broken bones.

Frogs should be be given opportunities to break line of sight with each other and the ability to hide, so there should be a mix of open space, overhangs, and some dense plant over. The important thing is to provide them with choices. Don’t forget the leaf litter!

Substrate in general is a big topic with many discussions in the dendroboard.com archives. General recommendations for this species below.

A thick layer of leaf litter covering the floor of the tank, essential to serve the following
functions:

• Provides a natural surface for the frogs to navigate.
• Creates opportunities for the frogs to hide and bed down for the night, to set up ambushes for prey, and avoid being seen by humans and tank mates if they so choose. Being able to break line-of-sight is important for the frogs to feel secure and free of stress.
• Critically, creates a vertical moisture gradient. The leaf litter should dry out on top completely a couple of hours after misting. The further down under the leaf layer you go, the damper and more humid it will be, enabling the frogs to choose micro-climates suited for their comfort and well-being. Giving captive animals a choice of where to be is always important.
• Provides a barrier between the frogs and the substrate, which will reduce opportunities for them to ingest it along with their prey.

There is a trend right now to cover tanks in lush carpets of moss. This is not good dart frog husbandry as amongst other things, maintaining the moss means the tank will inevitably be too wet for the long term health of the frogs.

P. terribilis in particular are known for being susceptible to bad — very often fatal — bacterial infections if kept too wet without opportunities to dry out a bit. Humidity and wetness are not the same thing. This doesn't mean you can't use moss, but it's best grown epiphytically, not covering the ground.

There are many choices for what to place beneath your leaf litter, but in the interest of maintaining the drainage these frogs need for long-term health, it’s prudent to avoid soil blends and moss. A fired clay substrate like Turface or the equivalent, will serve the following functions:

1. Enable good drainage.
2. Provide an anchor for any plants grown directly in the substrate.
3. Provide a large surface area for microfauna and beneficial micro-organisms that will help decompose waste.

Avoid coco-fibre, loose tree-fern fibre, and other twiggy or fibrous choices. P. terribilis have been known to ingest fibres, twigs or sticks with poor outcomes. Fibrous material and small twigs can be difficult for frogs to extricate from their mouths especially if partially swallowed already, and by their nature such objects will be difficult to pass.
Adults are aggressive feeders. Large females in the author’s collection have been found with large pieces of Philodendron plants in their mouths, no doubt pulled from where they weren’t firmly established yet during an enthusiastic attack on some hapless insect. Expect the unexpected and avoid it as much as possible.

If you are using a soil blend, as mentioned above, use that thick layer of leaf litter to act as a barrier; now would also be a good time to mention that the use of sphagnum moss as a layer is both outdated and unnecessary because it will retain too much moisture and has no benefits for the frogs.

The final, lowest layer is for drainage. A layer of LECA or gravel, false bottoms, trenches etc. — all serve the same purpose: to keep standing water away from the substrate layers and the frogs. Dart frogs are terrestrial animals from humid environments but don’t live in swamps of standing water. This will also require research to determine the best solution for your enclosure.


TEMPERATURE

P. terribilis will do well in the low to mid 70s Fahrenheit range, and should not be subjected to temperatures of 80F or above which could prove harmful or even fatal to the frogs. Like any dart frog, care must be taken that their enclosures aren’t near a window where they could get overheated by direct sunlight, and this species may not be a good choice if your home gets very warm during the summer.

A safe upper limit would be 77F, allowing a buffer for unexpected spikes. The author’s frogs seldom see temperatures above 75F.

It is very useful to note here, that while there may be higher temperatures recorded in the frogs’ home range, these readings are not granular enough to take into account micro-climates deep in the understory, frog behaviour throughout the day or other factors such as evaporative cooling.

Once again, it should be stressed that a closed, captive environment cannot ever replicate the complexity of an actual rainforest; we’re trying to solve husbandry problems, not “replicate” what’s impossible to replicate.

HUMIDITY

Learning the difference between ‘wetness’ and ‘relative humidity’ can be confusing at first. P. terribilis need to dry out and can suffer serious health problems if kept too wet, including fatal bacterial infections. But like all dart frogs they need a baseline of moisture content in the air to remain comfortable and healthy.

It gets more confusing when you take into account that ambient humidity in the home will vary from keeper to keeper, what region you’re living in, your home’s HVAC system and even the time of year.

Then it gets even more confusing because of the way information — even outdated information — hangs around on the internet and gets repeated by well-meaning people. For years dart frogs were kept with very little ventilation and to this day you will see outdated care sheets being referenced that cite 80 - 90% humidity.

An average of 70% is more than adequate; levels will temporarily spike after a misting but this is normal. A simple rule of thumb is to observe the tank. Do the interior surfaces — plants, leaf litter, hardscape — dry out about 2 to 3 hours after being misted? That’s about where you want to be. Air movement is achieved passively via strategic ventilation or you may employ fans when and if necessary.

Hygrometers available to hobbyists tend to be inaccurate or rendered inaccurate by the punishing conditions inside a dart frog tank; readings will also vary by placement and duration so they’re of limited use to keepers, hence the 2 to 3 hour dry-out rule. To get a better idea it can help to actually talk through what this looks like with more experienced keepers.

WHY WATER FEATURES ARE A BAD IDEA

Even shallow water features may create drowning hazards for terrestrial dart frogs, are always
difficult to keep clean, and often render the tank too wet.

While these frogs may encounter seepage or rainforest streams in their natural habitats, the interaction of circulating water, rain, and wind in a giant rainforest are not comparable to the small volumes of even the largest dart frog enclosures in captivity. They’re simply not equivalent.

People love to argue this point, but for solid foundational care that eliminates variables and potential problems, the answer is simple. Don’t use a water feature, especially where P. terribilis is concerned.

BEHAVIOUR & GROUP LIVING

Adults are fearless and remain out in the open most of the day. Young frogs (less than a year old) may be more skittish and shy, but in a properly set up vivarium they will outgrow this and become very entertaining — by the time they’re young adults they sit and hunt out in the open with no regard for observers, and like other species may learn to associate humans with food, approaching the front of the enclosure when they spot their keeper as this is one of the boldest dart frogs.

Both males and females are capable of vocalizing, but it’s not very common for females and will be more along the lines of short chirps or ‘grumbling’ if disturbed by a conspecific.

Males have different vocalizations for different situations, ranging from the sounds mentioned above to what can only be described as a high-pitched rasp or growl, sometimes heard during disputes with other males — but their trademark is a loud, sustained, and very pleasant trilling call that is unmistakable for anything other than what it is; an invitation to females and a proclamation to other males of territoriality.

P. terribilis is a good candidate for group living, usually co-existing in peace and often seen to follow each other around — no doubt to see who’s found food. Any combination of sexes may be kept together, but as with any group of animals, keepers should remain observant and intervene in case of overt bullying, or a subordinate animal simply being outcompeted for food. While this may occur at any age, it’s more likely to be seen in very young frogs.

Something to watch for: sometimes a stressed animal simply freezes and does not hunt or feed when in line-of-sight of the dominant animal, even though there is no overt aggression. If you notice a frog that consistently won’t feed in the presence of another or appears to be losing weight, you may have a problem. This is more often seen with very young froglets and often remedied by separating overly subordinate animals to give them a chance to develop away from the dominant froglets.

It’s important not to wait too long; a frog that appears obviously thinner for a consistent period of time should be attended to before it loses weight in the upper hind legs, at which point it’s in real trouble.

Also note that although adults will generally leave younger, smaller frogs alone, due to their sheer size they’ll overwhelm them at feeding time, so for this reason it’s not recommended to keep smaller, younger frogs with older animals that are too big to compete with.

As adults, both sexes will occasionally spar or wrestle with one another over territory or access to mates. These are usually short, harmless bouts ranging from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. This is not the same as bullying and generally does not result in harm, but it’s important to have a safe environment and monitor such interactions closely to see that they do not go too far or affect the feeding, weight or behaviour of any of the individuals.

• Is it brief? The longer it goes on, the more opportunity for injury or stress.
• Do the animals involved continue to act normally after the ritual combat? i.e. do they
continue to feed and remain out in the open?
• The combat should not be overly frequent or constant.

Both adult males and females have been seen in drawn-out disputes that go on and off for hours, but this has been observed after they’ve been moved to a new enclosure with new territory to stake out. As always, keep an eye on them; but they should return to relatively peaceful cohabitation within a day, with no harm done.

P. terribilis Combat:


Reminder: when designing enclosures for frogs at any age, make sure they can break line-of-sight, both with you and each other.

FEEDING — PREY ITEMS & FREQUENCY

While variety is good, the tried and true staple remains the fruit fly. Do your research and get good at culturing them. Nothing worse than running out!

• Springtails (for very small froglets)
• Flightless fruit flies - D. melanogaster (slightly older froglets to adults)
• Flightless fruit flies - D. hydeii (older froglets to adults)
• Smaller soft-bodied isopods (for larger juveniles, sub-adults and adults)
• Crickets (up to quarter-inch size, for larger juveniles, sub-adults and adults)
• Wax worms only as an occasional treat; they’re too fatty to be offered regularly.

This species will attack almost anything that moves and take much larger prey items than other dart frogs, but avoid problems by using common sense: keep prey size manageable for safe swallowing and digestion.

Also take care not to release too many prey items into the enclosure at once as this may cause problems such as stressing out the frogs (particularly younger frogs) or making it difficult to monitor how much they’re actually eating and how much supplementation they receive. Sub-adults are fed daily, adults one year of age or older may be fed every other day depending on amount of food given.

Frogs should present a powerfully built, sleek appearance. Slightly plump is normal but they should never appear chunky or ‘roly-poly’ — obese frogs will not be as active and suffer from health problems and reduced lifespans.

Frogs are opportunistic feeders that will gorge themselves on all available prey, as in the wild they’re not guaranteed food on a regular basis. Because of the enthusiastic feeding response and their propensity to learn that humans feed them and “beg” for food, they can become overweight rapidly so don’t overdo it!

SUPPLEMENTATION

• Repashy Calcium Plus lightly dusted at every feeding.
• Repashy Vitamin A once every 2-3 weeks for adults one year of age or older, once a week
for breeding adults.

Supplements MUST be kept refrigerated and replaced every 6 months without fail, as they begin to oxidize and lose potency as soon as they’re opened.

There are many supplements on the market, some are marketed as more general reptile and amphibian supplements, others targeted at dart frogs. This care sheet recommends Repashy supplements as they’ve been proven over the years to be effective and are formulated to be metabolized by dendrobatids — not all calcium and vitamin supplements are.

SUMMARY

• Some ventilation is required
• About 70% humidity throughout the day
• Temperatures in the low to mid ‘70s
• Provide good drainage
• LOTS of leaf litter!
• Surfaces inside tank should dry out about 3 hours after misting
• Use Repashy vitamin supplements kept refrigerated and replaced every 6 months
• Do not overfeed
• Tanks with good floor space so they have room to roam, a little climbing
• Observe your frogs daily!
 
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