Confessions of a Dart Frog Breeder

Poison dart frog
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Dart frogs come in many beautiful colors. The one pictured above is a Dendrobates tinctorius.

There are two types of egg-feeding frogs, Nabors says. For one type, the eggs are "the only food the tadpoles will eat, and if you remove the male from the tank, everything will continue — the female will visit them and feed them." But the other type does things slightly differently: The male calls the female to where he has deposited the tadpoles and, with behavior that resembles courtship, stimulates her to lay feeder eggs for the tadpole.

While the egg-feeding frogs raise their own young, they only produce about 10 offspring per year. For the more prolific species, successful captive breeding requires more intense human involvement. "In the wild, the male frog would have a choice of numerous different sites to drop off the tadpoles," Nabors says. "In a terrarium, there's likely to be only one or two sites that would support a tadpole, and if you put more than one tadpole in one of those sites, you only get one tadpole out of that. They eat each other, they compete with each other, probably hormonally or chemically. They don't make it easy on each other."

That sibling competition means that if a breeder wants all of the tadpoles to reach maturity, each one needs to be given its own little body of water. So at any given time, Nabors can have 500 to 800 tadpoles at various stages of development, each in its own container, all of which need to be individually fed and cleaned. It's a lot of work.

The Business of Breeding

Unlike the tadpoles, the most complicated thing about keeping adult frogs is that most frogs will only eat live, moving food. If you've only got a few frogs, buying live food makes sense, but when you're caring for frogs on a large scale, you've really got to raise your own.

"The secret job that no one thinks about when they think they're going to get into breeding frogs is probably making food," Nabors says. This involves at least a couple of hours each week making fruit fly cultures — filling containers with a special medium for the flies to feed and live on, adding adult flies that will breed and keeping them at the right moisture level. "I always can find some excuse to do something else," Nabors says. "It's a tedious job once you've done it a few hundred times."

These days, it's not a job Nabors is handling himself — he has a business to run, with many of the same tasks as any other small business, so he has an employee who takes care of the fruit fly cultures while he handles other less frog-centric chores. "A lot of those jobs are just like if you ran a dry cleaner," he says, "purchase supplies, set up a website, make sure your equipment is working." Being a frog breeder isn't just about breeding the frogs.

Once the frogs are bred and fed, Nabors needs to make sales — and a big part of that process involves giving advice to customers. Although it might seem counterintuitive, Nabors will talk potential buyers out of getting a frog if he thinks they are not prepared to care for it. "There are a lot of unscrupulous dealers that don't do this," he says. "This helps create the misperception that dart frogs are difficult, because people wind up killing the frogs and come away from it with the idea that they are hard."

Where to Buy Your Frogs

Nabors advises anyone interested in keeping dart frogs to buy from someone, like him, who breeds in captivity, rather than from a pet store where the source of the frogs is unknown. This might sound self-serving, but it's good advice for a number of reasons.

The pet trade is a serious problem for some exotic animals, but not necessarily for dart frogs. Nabors believes that habitat loss poses a much bigger risk for these animals than collecting does. And while it's not illegal to sell wild-caught specimens, it is better for the wild populations to get pet frogs from breeders; taking them from the wild could potentially upset the native populations and lead to endangerment eventually.

In addition, wild-caught dart frog specimens have been through the stress of transport and are more likely to have diseases and parasites, so they're best left to the experts.

In the end, a captive-bred frog sets your mind at ease as far as any effects on the wild population — and, Nabors says, "as a hobbyist, you are much more likely to succeed if you buy a captive-bred frog from me."


Read more on Vetstreet:

How You Can Help Protect Endangered Frogs

Building Good Karma: The Buddhist Ceremony of Releasing Turtles

How Hamsters, Guinea Pigs and Other Pets Can Help Autistic Children

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