Study finds ethical and illicit sources of poison frogs in the U.S. pet trade

Photo credit: Devin Edmonds

by Lisa Sheppard, Prairie Research Institute

With their vibrant colors and small size, poison frogs are popular among amphibian pet owners in the U.S. Most poison frogs come from legitimate frog breeding operations here and abroad, but some are still snatched from the wild illegally in their native countries, according to Devin Edmonds, doctoral student at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS).

Given that one-third of amphibian species are threatened with extinction, Edmonds wanted to explore the trade dynamics of the widely kept poison frogs over the past 30 years to better understand potential threats.

“During the pandemic when I couldn’t be out in the field studying frogs, I found myself staring at frogs in terrariums and thinking about where they came from,” said Edmonds, who has kept poison frogs since the late 1990s. “Nobody seemed to know, so I started creating a spreadsheet of frogs in private collections to figure out how they actually got there.”

Edmonds collected data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other organizations, as well as from social media groups, Internet forums, and through interviews with private poison frog breeders and dealers.

Edmonds found that in the late 1980s, fewer than 100 people kept poison frogs in the U.S., but today between 50,000 to 100,000 people own them. From 1990 to 2020, the number of poison frog species kept in private collections increased 108 percent to 53 species, and the number of different color morphs increased 766 percent to 355 in 2020. In the past 20 years, most of the imported live frogs came from Panama and Nicaragua.

The proportion of threatened species in U.S. private collections is about the same as that found in the wild. Some critically endangered species, such as the harlequin poison frog and Lehmann’s poison frog, were found in private collections in 2015–2020.

Poison frogs are now readily available in local pet shops, typically for $50 to $100 each. The species more likely to be smuggled are sold for $2,000 and up.

From 1990 to 2005, a small percentage of frogs were smuggled directly to the U.S., most commonly from Peru, Panama, and Ecuador. In the 90s and 2000s, poison frogs were also smuggled to Europe and were confiscated by research institutions that partner with private breeders. Eventually the frogs’ descendants were imported to the U.S.

While the number of smuggled frogs into the country has decreased since about 2010, some private frog owners believed that wild-caught frogs had been imported from commercial breeders in Panama since 2000.

“One business operation in Panama accounted for the largest number of poison frog imports to the U.S. since 2000,” Edmonds said. “Tens of thousands of wild-caught frogs were being exported on paper as farm raised. Panama knew they were being exported and the U.S. knew they were being imported, but the frogs were misrepresented as captive bred.”

Poaching wild frogs can have a large effect on poison frog populations. Overharvesting species can lead to extinction and narrow the diversity of frogs. Also, some of the most valuable frogs breed in tree canopies, so smugglers destroy habitats to access them.

Captive breeding and ranching businesses in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia are designed to compete with frog smuggling operations, with some success as the species and color morphs new to the trade that were descendants of smuggled frogs have decreased. Some of these businesses use profits from frog sales to fund habitat management and protection.

Frogs from these businesses are typically the same price as smuggled frogs and are in much better condition, Edmonds said. With a healthy supply of ethically produced poison frogs, there is not as much incentive for exploiting those in the wild.

Given the many different sources of poison frogs, owners and hobbyists should be aware of where their pets come from, Edmonds said.   

“The overwhelming number of poison frogs kept in the U.S. were probably bred domestically,” Edmonds said. “It is unlikely that you’ll accidentally buy a smuggled frog in a pet store.”

A reptile expo or trade show though may have a higher probability of displaying frogs obtained illegally. The species and age of the animals are good indicators.

“If there are 20 adults of a hard-to-breed species sitting on a table, they are probably coming from the wild,” Edmonds said.

Edmond’s journal article, Poison Frogs Traded and Maintained by U.S. Private Breeders, was published in Herpetological Review in December 2021.

Media contact: Devin Edmonds, 941-210-2009,

This story first appeared on the Prairie Research Institute News Blog. Read the original story.

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