Diving into the Enchanting World of the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog

Diving into the Enchanting World of the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog

The Vibrant Tapestry of Costa Rican Amphibians

I didn’t expect to spot any of these tiny amphibians on our trip to Costa Rica, so I was amazed to notch up at least eight different species. Thanks primarily to the fantastic guides on our rainforest night walks, of course. But I was proud to have found the two types of poison dart frog pictured here all by myself, although they were jumping about in low light, and hence those particular photos aren’t great.

According to National Geographic – and who doesn’t trust them? – there are 149 species of frog in Costa Rica. They like the moist lowlands best, so are most commonly found around Arenal and the central-south pacific areas, which we were lucky enough to visit. But they can be found all over the country. The frog that most people associate with Costa Rica is the Red-Eyed Tree Frog, and it was certainly the species we saw the most – and my personal favorite – hence its multiple appearances in the highlights below.

Poison dart frogs, however, are arguably the more interesting. Secreting toxins from their skin in self-defense and having vivid aposematic coloration or markings to deter predators, they’ve captured the imagination of people for centuries. For centuries, the indigenous tribes of the rainforest have used their poison to tip blowpipe darts for hunting, hence their common name. There are over 170 species in the world – we saw three of them: the strawberry poison dart frog (or blue jeans frog), the green and black spotted poison dart frog, and the striped poison dart frog (not pictured).

Enchanting Encounters in the Rainforest

Our first introduction to the wonders of Costa Rican wildlife came in the lush wetlands of Tortuguero National Park. After a 90-minute boat ride through mangroves and rivers, we disembarked to find our home for the next two nights – the charming Laguna Lodge, with its sprawling grounds and views over the eponymous lagoon.

The main event, of course, was the next day’s boat safari along the canals and waterways. Fortified with a salad of papaya, melon, and cassava (yum!), we let our guide navigate us through the stunningly lush, verdant green river habitats, fringed with palms, wild mango, crabwood, fig, and breadnut trees. The protected park comprises 19,000 hectares of rainforest, beach, mangroves, and lagoon, with over 300 species of bird, 100 different reptiles, and around 60 species of mammals. We obviously only saw a small part of it, but were surprised at the range and volume of critters to be seen.

Our chaperone, though quiet and somewhat humorless, was clearly incredibly knowledgeable, with an uncanny ability to spot even the tiniest flash of color indicating the presence of a lizard, warbler, or other rare delight. I loved every second of the trip, gleefully taking in the reserve’s wonders, learning about conservation efforts, and snapping away with my camera. It was disappointing to head back to the hotel’s private dock three hours later, but I consoled myself by immediately getting out my dorky ornithology guide and contentedly ticking things off whilst munching an empanada and sipping toad water (agua de sapo) – a sludgy but delicious mix of sugar cane, limes, and ginger.

Later that evening, we were also lucky enough to spot some red-eyed leaf frogs in moist vegetation near our chalet. See my upcoming dedicated frog post for photos!

Exploring the Diversity of Costa Rica’s Amphibians

After our magical experience in Tortuguero, we moved on to the rural area of Sarapiquí, where we encountered another fascinating frog – the strawberry poison dart frog, locally referred to as the “blue jeans” frog. This vibrant amphibian was just one of the many incredible creatures we spotted during our night walk in the La Tirimbina biological reserve.

Armed with flashlights, enough bug spray to floor a professional wrestler, and our darkest clothes, we crossed the country’s second-longest suspension bridge, swinging unsteadily over the Río Sarapiquí, and entered the reserve. Tirimbina protects 345 hectares (852 acres) of pre-montane tropical forest, hosting a wide array of different ecosystems and over 9 kilometers of walking trails.

Our guide, Charlene, was a true hero, helping us spot scorpions, tarantulas, cane toads, frogs, basilisks, howlers, geckos, and stick insects. Her eyesight was phenomenal – I have no idea how she managed to isolate them within the impenetrable blackness. Paul and I, however, got most excited by the sprightly armadillo that crossed our path twice and a fer-de-lance snake, the most venomous in Central and South America, with a bite that can be fatal to humans.

We were so impressed with the forest that we returned the next night to be educated by William on all things bat-related. Costa Rica has more than 100 species of bats, making up 50% of the country’s total mammal population, and 70% of those species can be found at Tirimbina. While some eat insects or feast on blood, most species feed primarily on fruit, pollen, and nectar. With the aid of humane mist nets, the staff captured a range of bats for us to observe up close – a docile proboscis bat, a common tent-making bat, a Honduran white bat, and the larger frog-eating or fringe-lipped bat.

Discovering the Wonders of La Selva Research Centre

Another highlight of our time in Sarapiquí was a visit to the La Selva research centre and biological reserve. As a working field station, our guide Joel had spent over a decade there researching plants and insects. The reserve is owned and operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies, a consortium of universities and research institutions, and is recognized internationally as one of the most productive field stations in the world for tropical forest research.

Our short trek, which barely scratched the surface of the 1,500-hectare reserve, took us through primary and secondary forest, crossing suspension bridges and observing some of the 1,000 plants and 250 trees in the area. In less than three hours, we ticked off the great tinamou (one of the most primitive birds on the planet), a helicopter damselfly, a two-toed sloth, three very beautiful keel-billed (or rainbow-beaked) toucans, a Central American whiptail lizard, several black river turtles, a red-webbed tree frog, two pale-billed woodpeckers, and a milk frog, which the guide got particularly excited about.

Exploring the Diverse Habitats of Costa Rica

From the lush lowlands of Sarapiquí, we moved on to the northern province of Alajuela, home to the iconic Arenal Volcano. Taking a short trek over the lava fields, we looked out over the 85-square-kilometer man-made lake, a key part of Costa Rica’s green energy policy.

Crossing the lake by boat, we reached the rural hills and valleys of Cabaceras, where we visited the Rancho Heliconia. This ranch, with a blue flag for sustainable practices, specializes in growing coffee. Its owner, doña Roxana, belongs to one of the original Costa Rican families to settle in the area, and she made us feel like we were visiting family, serving us delicious traditional dishes like slow-cooked lamb, spicy chicken, and the obligatory rice and beans, all complemented by her homemade cheese and a seaweed dressing.

Our final stop was the Monteverde region, where we explored the Curi-Cancha Reserve on a night walk. Despite a less-than-stellar guide, we were still able to spot a sleeping orange-bellied trogon, two mottled owls, a green toucanette, a tarantula, a spotted wood thrush, and a sea of dancing fireflies.

The Enduring Magic of Costa Rican Frogs

Throughout our journey, the vibrant and diverse amphibians of Costa Rica captivated us at every turn. From the iconic red-eyed tree frogs to the elusive and toxic poison dart frogs, these remarkable creatures have etched themselves into the tapestry of the country’s remarkable natural heritage.

As I look back on our adventure, I’m filled with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the fragile ecosystems that sustain these amphibian marvels. Their vivid colors, intricate adaptations, and symbiotic relationships with the surrounding flora and fauna serve as a reminder of the delicate balance that underpins the natural world.

I encourage everyone to explore the world of exotic pets and discover the incredible diversity of life on our planet. The strawberry poison dart frog is just one of the many fascinating species that await your exploration. So, dive into the enchanting world of Costa Rican amphibians and let their beauty and resilience inspire you to cherish and protect the natural wonders that surround us.

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