With a well-crafted environment to live in, dart frogs make for a low-maintenance and visually appealing pet.
In the shorthand that develops amongst long-time staffers in herp retailing, “You keep them like dart frogs” is a very common response to requests for care instructions. But, of course, that presumes one knows how to care for dart frogs.
They are one of those animals that requires care and diligence to set up, but nearly nothing to maintain. Dart frogs’ care requirements apply not only to a number of other frogs, but also some lizards and even a few snakes. The maintenance of crested geckos and dead leaf chameleons, in particular, is nearly identical to that of dart frogs.
Dart frogs, also known as poison arrow frogs, have a lot to offer as pets. They have been described as jewels, and that is quite accurate. Unlike almost all other frogs, they are diurnal, often cavorting about their enclosure in full daytime view of their humans. They thrive in beautifully planted terrariums, and do not—unlike so many other creatures, including us—trash their homes.
On the negative side, dart frogs do not take well to handling, and they require some specialized feeding. More on that later.
Most animals we sell in my shop can go home on the day of purchase and can be set up with everything they need in less than a half hour. You can do that with dart frogs, but frankly, I recommend a different approach. Just as you would set up an aquatic tank for tropical fish far in advance of acquiring the fish themselves, you should develop a cage and only introduce the animals when the terrarium has been firmly established.
While that may seem to be at the retailer’s disadvantage, look at it this way: You can now sell all the materials necessary to establish a living vivarium. For most frogs, you’d sell a tank, a water area, bedding and maybe a few fake plants. But with dart frogs, the customer has the prospect of developing a real environment, and to that end, you’d be selling a larger tank, waterfall/filter system, live plants, more elaborate substrate, UV light, etc.
You can also do what we have had great success with—building living terrariums and then selling the completed unit. This is a no-muss/no-fuss option for customers who can’t be bothered with the work and just want the end product. A few gorgeous enclosures, fully functioning and ready to go with already-established frog colonies, is a seduction many people cannot resist.
It should be noted that dart frogs are quite territorial and sometimes aggressive toward each other in ways that are difficult for any but the most experienced keeper to recognize. To that end, keep your populations per tank low, and give them plenty of cover. Dart frogs are difficult but not impossible to sex. Females tend to be larger and have greater girth than males. Some species have particular “tells,” such as the size of the toe pad or the arch of the back. You should do what you can to sex them, as males are aggressive and will not tolerate the presence of other males. Each dart frog should have its own “home” within the tank, so lots of hide options should be provided. Many breeders find that half coconut shells, with a small notch for a door, are just what the frogs want.
The Right Environment
Dart frogs are one of the few amphibians for whom I think UV lighting is a must. After all, they are day-active, and frequent forest floors dappled in sunlight. To that end, I recommend a 5.0 bulb. Many people make the mistake of using one of the incandescent UV fixtures and bulbs. These are appropriate for arboreal animals, for which the cage tends to be taller than it is long. But when you need the light to be present over a long tank, a fluorescent set up spanning the length of the tank is a must. After all, if you feel comfortable at 72 degrees, do you want that temperature at one corner of the living room or throughout the house?
I mentioned earlier that feeding can be an issue with these frogs. The problem is not the size of their appetites, but the size of their mouths. They are little black holes of bug absorption, but the bugs have to be tiny. All but the largest frogs require nothing bigger than one-week-old crickets, fruit flies or thrips. Thrips are plant predators, and your planted tank might already have a population of them going. Both the crickets and fruit flies are commercially available and common at better pet stores. As the crickets are the only ones to which you can successfully apply vitamins and calcium, it is imperative that keepers be diligent about dusting them. The standard vitamins and calcium you might use for any other insectivores work well for dart frogs.
While many temperate frogs need nothing other than room temperature, it is prudent to offer darts some range of choice. Because of the nature of their territoriality, and depending on the size of the tank’s population, a few small, discrete hot spots will work better than a cage with a hot end and a cool end. A few of the herp supply manufacturers have seen this need and have answered with some wonderful “nano” fixtures and bulbs. I am partial to the Zoo Med line.
There are myriad species, subspecies, color morphs and geographical variations amongst the darts. Because it can get overwhelming and frankly quite confusing, I would entreat you to carefully research any and all potential animals you may be offered before purchasing them, just as you would have your customers do. However, there are some relatively common and very dependable species I would recommend as good entries into the field.
Dendrobates auratus, the green and black dart frog, is a small frog whose black background is offset by a metallic green (and in one variation, blue) reticulated pattern. Like Jackson’s chameleons, these South American natives were introduced into the Hawaiian Islands and were commonly exported for many years before Hawaii tightened up its export laws. Because of that, they are to this day the most common dart frog in the pet trade.
Dendrobates tinctorius, the cobalt dyeing dart frog (also just called “tincs”) is a much larger frog in which the black background is offset with deep blue lace patterns and slashes of lemon yellow. Native to Suriname, they are characterized by bold personalities, even by the extroverted standards of dart frogs.
Finally, Dendrobates leucomelas, the well-named bumblebee dart frog, features vivid bands of yellow to orange across their bodies. Not quite as large as the tincs, but much bigger than the auratus, these too are fine beginner frogs. Their natural range spans Colombia to Venezuela.
If in fact dart frogs are not available wholesale to you, you might also keep your eye out for their Madagascan equivalent, the equally pretty Mantellas. Care is pretty much exactly the same, and the variety of color morphs rivals the darts. They also are excellent examples by which to teach youngsters the concept of convergent evolution!
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.