Poison Frogs & Their Vivaria

21 May

Poison frogs in reality are a family of frogs that has one hundred and seventy species.  Most people associate the name Poison Arrow, Poison Dart, and Dart Poison frogs with sixty-five different species that are highly colored.  The Poison frogs most are familiar with are further broken down into four of the eight genera of the family Dendrobatidae .  These four different genera are Dendrobates , which has twenty-six species.

Epipedobates also has twenty-six species and are very similar to the Phyllobates, which has five species but the Epipedobates lack the metallic coloring.  Minyobates only contain nine species, two of which occur occasionally in the hobby.  These diminutive creatures (very seldom more than five centimeters) are found in Central American and South American rain forests.  Their diet in the wild consists of ants, termites, small spiders, and other small insects.  These incredible frogs are diurnal and require little as far as care and maintenance.  If you were considering a vivarium I would personally encourage anyone to obtain these animals.  As they will make a great addition to and add colors to your lushly planted tank.

Easily Kept Species
First, there is no such thing as an easy to keep species of any animal.  All animals kept in captivity require work and maintenance to keep them alive and happy.  The term easily kept or hardy means that these animals are capable of adjusting to and tolerating poor conditions.  This does not mean in any way that you should try to see how much poor care that they will tolerate.  It simply means that they are capable of adjusting for our mistakes made in their environment.

The Green & Black Poison frog Dendrobates auratus is one of the most easily kept species for beginners.  They do best in-groups of five or more.  These are not shy frogs and readily search the vivaria for food.  It should also be mentioned here that they have voracious appetites.  They achieve a size of up to 4cm and come in a variety of color morphs, which vary in price but are typically one of the more inexpensive species to purchase.  The Dyeing Poison frog Dendrobates tinctorius is another species that is readily available and easy to keep.  Again, there are many color morphs available to the hobbyist for reasonable prices.  They typically attain a size of 4-5cm in captivity, which makes them a large species, yet they are shy.  Water is not a factor for them; high humidity is necessary however.  Personal research says that they do well in pairs.  The Bumble bee Poison frog Dendrobates leucomelas is a relatively easy to keep species that according to most has one of the most beautiful calls out of all the poison frogs.  Adult size is typically 4cm.  These are best kept in-groups of five and will typically pick a mate and pair off with each other.

The beginning frog keeper can also keep Epipedobates but they must understand that these frogs are not as tolerant of adverse conditions.  These frogs are also more of a tropical species and require higher temperatures as well as humidity.  The Phantasmal Poison Frog E. tricolor it should be kept in-groups of two males and three females.  Adolescents are a brown color but change to a brighter red as they get older.  Males are also noted to have a loud call that can become annoying.  Threestriped poison frog E. trivittatus is another of the larger Dendrobatidae, which can be kept by beginners.  This species should not be kept in a small vivarium.  The vivarium should be planted with bromeliads, which the frogs can hide in.  It should also be designed with moisture absorbing walls and substrate.

The vivarium that is needed for poison frogs is easily constructed.  The materials needed are easily found in most of the local pet shops.  The tank size you will need depends on how many and what size the frogs will reach at maturity.  You can use a Ten, twenty, twenty-nine, or a thirty-gallon tank size.  Obviously the more room the more frogs you can keep.  So I will go through the set-up for a twenty-nine gallon setup that can house four adult frogs.  A natural vivarium is more pleasing to the eye and is a more natural home for the frogs.  Having this kind of setup will usually bring out the natural behaviors of the frogs and cause less stress for them.  A rust proof screen top is necessary to provide ventilation.  The next thing to decide upon is what type of backing you would like to use.  The backing is an important piece in the construction because plants will be attached to it as well as giving the frogs places to climb on.  Whatever material(s) you use make sure to use aquarium silicone to attach it to the glass.  This is a non-toxic silicone so it won’t harm your frogs if they should be exposed to it.  I will list some of the materials that are offered the final decision however is really one of personal preference.  The most commonly used are Cork Bark, Oak bark, Sculptured foam, Cocoa panels, and Fern Root Trunk.  My personal taste is that the Cork bark usually works best and is the easiest to work with.  You can easily cut and shape this to fit any way you want with a small saw and plants such as bromeliads attach easily to it.

The next order of business is to design the landscape.  There are several different ways to do this and depending on whom you talk to you will get different opinions on which one works best.  Some would say that the “False Bottom” works best due to harmful bacteria being able to collect into the soil.  However, this means when you look at your tank you will see a reservoir of water beneath with pumps and equipment exposed unless you tilt the false bottom forward to hide this.

Materials for a False Bottom Vivarium are a tank, egg crate (Light diffuser for fluorescent lights), Window screen, one inch PVC couplers or pieces of pipe, and a piece of plastic needlepoint mesh.  To begin building the vivarium first clean out the tank and dry it.  Then cut the light diffuser to fit the bottom of the tank.  Leave some space at one end for the open water portion.
The space covered by the light diffuser will be the land area of the vivarium.  Before placing the diffuser into the vivarium, I would glue the PVC spacers onto it.  What we are doing is making a natural slope of landscape to the water edge.  From the edge of the egg crate, you silicone the needlepoint mesh to the edge leading into the water area.  You can also now place a place pump underneath the false bottom.  This will take water from the reservoir that you have now created and pump it back up to the vivarium into a waterfall feature or streambed.  To create a streambed I suggest that you place a piece of plastic landscape vinyl onto the substrate with heavy river stones onto it.  You can also form it using nothing at all just mold the bedding to form a valley and place the stones in it.

On top of all of this, place the window screen, which should be fiberglass, to prevent rusting through.  The next step will be to place the substrate soil that you are using onto the entire bottom.  The best to use is the expandable type available from many pet stores.  You could also use non-treated potting soil.  This means that it has no fertilizer or pearlite contained within it.
A method that I have used is simply to put a two-inch layer of aquarium gravel in the bottom with the soil on top.  This seems to provide enough drainage for plants even with daily misting.  Another method is to use hydroponic culture stones the same way.  If you use these two methods I would recommend a shallow water dish that must be changed daily.  When doing the landscaping of the terrarium I like making hills and valleys to give it a more natural appearance.  This will also make small pools of water that are not standing but do occur with misting and then slowly drain on their own.  Planting is another consideration that the designer must pay close attention to.  It is essential that the plants you choose are capable of being in a high humidity environment.

The plants that I have used include Pothos, Hedera, and Dracaena.  Other suggested plants are Flame violet Episcia cupreata, Lace flower Episcia dianthifiora, Schefflera, Creeping fig Ficus pumilus, (this plant has been known to break the seal on aquariums) and Philodendron.  Bromeliads are a very popular plant to use in the vivaria setting.  Most bromeliads should be maintained as a delicate plant.  Depending on what type of Bromeliad there are specific care requirements that must be followed.  It is recommended that most of the “air plants” be attached to the vivarium wall above the ground and watered in the throat leaving the roots of the plant dry.

Tillandsia is in the same family as Bromeliads but they are purely epiphytic plants that only grow on the sides of the vivarium out of the water.  It has been noted that only the green species will survive and not the silver leaf type.  They are also only decorative plants, which the frogs cannot use.  Another important thing to mention here are that whatever plants you choose must be free of chemical fertilizers generally used at nurseries.  These can harm the frogs because they will be absorbed through their skin.  One way to achieve this is to either order the plant from an organic nursery or wash the plant roots in water until the root base is soil free.  Planting is another place where the final choice is yours but there are varying opinions.  With the gravel/soil setup that I use, I simply plant the terrarium the way I would in normal landscaping by placing the plant roots directly into the soil.  For those who use the False Bottom type of terrarium, it is typically best to leave the plants in the pot and place these into the soil for easy removal and maintenance.
The next topic is one of the most important not for the frogs but for the plants.  Lighting is one thing that most people overlook when they are designing the terrarium because the plants that are used are “Shade” plants.  While this is true in regular outdoor landscaping this is not the case in the terrarium.  Full spectrum fluorescent lighting is one of the key elements to keeping the plants alive.  These types of lights can be found easily at your local pet shop or your regular home garden center they are usually cheaper at the garden centers.  The light can be placed into an aquarium strip-light fixture then placed directly atop the screen top.

Heating is another crucial part of the environment.  The temperature should be between 70°-80° degrees F.  This can be easily maintained by an under tank heater.  Humidity is another concern that must be addressed.  Humidity should be maintained above seventy percent.  This can be done easily enough through regular misting once every two to three days.  If you find that the terrarium is getting too dry by this method, you can also cover the screen partially with plastic.

In conclusion, one thing that must be made clear is the fact that the name Poison Frog is just a name.  Unless, the animals you obtain are wild caught then they are more than likely not poisonous.  The reason for this is that their diet, which makes them poisonous in the wild, is not available to them in captivity.

Coborn John, 1996. Frogs and Toads as a new pet T.F.H. publications New Jersey
Stewart Sean K., 2001. All that glitters… Discover the real poison dart frog, the golden Poison frog. (Phyllobates terribilis) Reptiles guide to keeping reptiles and amphibians 9:5 10-14
Kelley Todd, 2001. Pick your poison. Reptiles guide to keeping reptiles and amphibians 2001 annual 6-12

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