Why can you die just from picking up the South American “poison dart” frog?

There are several species of such frogs which contain such powerful toxins that just brushing against its poisonous skin is enough to kill an adult human. One hundredth of a milligram of batrachotoxin, an incredibly small amount, is lethal. The frogs are brilliantly colored, a natural warning to predators. But it was undoubtedly their stunning appearance that first attracted South American natives who then learned through experience that handling the frogs was not a good idea. On the other hand, a touch of toxin on the tips of arrows or darts was enough to bring down large prey. But how do you handle the frogs to extract the poison? Natives use a leaf to pick the creatures up and rub the tip of the dart in the poisonous mucous of the frog’s skin to prepare it for the blowgun. Poison frogs are thought to obtain their toxicity from consuming poisonous insects. The frogs themselves have developed an immunity to the poison. Perhaps the most spectacular of the poison dart frogs is Dendrobates azureus, which has a beautiful cobalt blue color. But it is very much a case of “look but don’t touch.” Not many predators can withstand the poison of a poison arrow frog. Leimadophis epinephelus is one known snake which seems to be immune to most of this frog family’s poison. There is a positive side to the powerful toxins that poison dart frogs excrete. Epipedrobates tricolor from Equidor may eventually furnish us with a new pain-killer which blocks pain more effectively than morphine. Epibatidine itself is too toxic to use, but chemists have determined its molecular structure and are synthesizing various derivatives which look to be very hopeful. Morphine can also suppress breathing and stop the digestive movement in the intestines and the bowel. Tests have shown that some synthetic derivatives of epibatidine do not hinder respiration, diminish digestive movement or show signs of addiction. Obviously, toxins can be used to kill or to cure.

Joe Schwarcz

2 Responses to “Why can you die just from picking up the South American “poison dart” frog?”

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