Sometime in 2008, I saw a photograph of a splendid poison frog from Brazil. It came from a set of photos taken during a series of expeditions between 2004 and 2006 in Estado Amapa, a lush rainforest region in the Guinea Shield.
During those expeditions, a researcher named Enrico Bernard (affiliated with Conservation International) snapped a photograph of what appeared to be a new species of poison frog (genus Dendrobates). Its coloration was so unusual, that researchers proposed that it might be a previously undescribed species.
New Poison Frog Species or an Unknown Morph?
Over time, that photo faded into memory until this week when I stumbled upon it again in one of my computer folders. This time I wasn’t going to let it go. I needed to know more about this frog. Was it some new species or just a fantastic polymorphism?
Since that photograph was taken, additional expeditions have been undertaken and extensive genetic research on poison frogs in the Guiana Shield has been performed. As a result, researchers are now confident that this poison frog is a member of the species Dendrobates tinctorius.
Now, my fellow herpers might be raising an eyebrow at this point. Dendrobates tinctorius is well known for producing polymorphisms, but nothing like this.
On the other hand, Dendrobates tinctorius is a reasonable candidate. As of 2007, there were at least 40 cataloged polymorphisms of the species. That was eventually compounded further by the revelation that the frog commonly known as Dendrobates azureus was actually a junior synonym of Dendrobates tinctorius – Dendrobates tinctorius “azureus”. With such a broad range of polymorphisms, it seems more and more plausible that the gene pool of Dendrobates tinctorius might spit out something like this spectacular frog.
Dendrobates tinctorius “Tumucumaque”
This particular poison frog morph is known as the Tumucumaque morph and it has been well-documented since its initial discovery during the 2004-2006 Rapid Biological Inventories in the Tumucumaque Mountains National Park. The literature indicates the morph was still present in the park during a follow-up expedition series conducted between 2012 and 2014.
It was during those expeditions that researcher Jucivaldo Dias Lima captured several reference images, including the one below. The two specimens in the photograph below are very much in line with what I would imagine if you asked me to combine an “azureus” morph with a more traditional “patched” morph of Dendrobates tinctorius.
The follow-up expeditions also collected at least one reference specimen of the frog. It is currently stored at the Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi in Belém, Brazil.
Outside of museums, it appears that a number of illicitly collected specimens have been smuggled out of Brazil. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) reported in its twenty-eighth annual meeting that there were attempts by Belgian and German nationals to smuggle the frog out of Brazil as early as 2012 – possibly via Suriname. By 2015, those attempts were successful and the morph was found circulating in the amphibian trade in Europe. It should be assumed that all specimens outside of Brazil circulating in the pet trade are derived from wild-caught stock removed in contravention of Brazilian law and without CITES documentation.
So, the mystery is solved and I have an important reminder of why morphology should never be used as a standalone method when it comes to classifying poison frogs. Just to drive that point home even further, below are some more polymorphisms of the same highly variable Dendrobates tictorius for your consideration.
This post has been updated from an earlier version posted in 2014.
- Ávila-Pires, T. C. S. D., Hoogmoed, M. S., & Rocha, W. A. D. (2010). Notes on the Vertebrates of northern Pará, Brazil: a forgotten part of the Guianan Region, I. Herpetofauna.
- Benício, R. A., & Lima, J. D. (2017). Anurans of Amapá National Forest, Eastern Amazonia, Brazil. Herpetology Notes, 10, 627-633.
- Bernard, E. (ed.). 2008. Inventários Biológicos Rápidos no Parque Nacional Montanhas do Tumucumaque, Amapá, Brasil. RAP Bulletin of Biological Assessment 48. Conservation International, Arlington, VA.
- Lötters, S., & Mutschmann, F. (2007). Poison frogs: biology, species & captive care. Edition Chimaira.
- Twenty-eighth meeting of the Animals Committee – Information documents. CITES. (n.d.). https://cites.org/eng/com/ac/28/inf/index.php.