Species Articles

A suggestion about common nomenclature for dendrobatids

By | Species Articles | No Comments

A suggestion about common nomenclature for dendrobatids*

César L. Barrio-Amorós
Fundacion AndigenA, Merida, Venezuela
E-mail: [email protected]

A passionate debate has been established about the common names used to refer to the different species groups or genera within the family Dendrobatidae (including here the subfamilies Aromobatinae and Dendrobatinae after Santos et al. 2009 contra full family Aromobatidae sensu Grant et al. 2006). Aromobatines have been sometimes named as poison dart frogs (Lynch 1982 for Hyloxalus edwardsi and H. ruizi) and poison frogs (La Marca et al. 2002 for Allobates humilis), and Dendrobatines have been called with regularity poison-arrow frogs, dart-poison frogs or poison-dart frogs (Silverstone 1973 for Oophaga histrionica; Daly et al. 1978 for many non-Phyllobates species; Ford 1993 for Dendrobatidae sensu lato; Rothmair 1994 for Ameerega trivittata; Summers & Amos 1996 for Ranitomeya ventrimaculata; and Grant et al 2006 for all dendrobatoids, just to mention a few). Even the most recent comprehensive treatment of poison frogs (Lötters et al. 2007) fails in describing what a poison frog is. So the question is, why name a whole family with a feature that is only common to some species?

As currently understood, only Dendrobatinae sensu stricto (with the following genera after Grant et al. 2006: Ameerega, Colostethus, Epipedobates, Silverstoneia, Hyloxalus, Adelphobates, Minyobates, Oophaga, Phyllobates, Ranitomeya) includes a majority of toxic species (although Colostethus and Hyloxalus are known to be non-toxic, a few species have some toxins: Colostethus panamensis, C. ucumari; the H. azureiventris clade of Grant et al. 2006, including H. azureiventris, H. chlorocraspedus and H. nexipus), thus should commonly be called poison frogs (and never dart or arrow poison frogs). Myers & Daly (1978) revealed that only a few species of Phyllobates (P. aurotaenia, P. terribilis, P. bicolor) have been used by Emberá indigenous people in Chocoan Colombia to poison their darts (never arrows).

The subfamily Aromobatinae (including the following genera: Anomaloglossus, Rheobates, Aromobates, Mannophryne, and Allobates), with no toxic species known so far, was named after the giant of the group, the skunk frog Aromobatesnocturnus. In my knowledge, only two other large species of Aromobates (A. leopardalis and A. meridensis) liberate a mercaptanlike odor as a defence, and for that reason, the whole subfamily should not be called Skunk frogs. A common name for some former Colostethus sensu lato (now in Dendrobatinae sensu stricto) was Rocket frogs (Walls 1994). The meaning (rapid, agile like a rocket) is applicable to the majority of species, and I am comfortable using this name for Colostethus sensu stricto, Hyloxalus and Silverstoneia. However, since all species carry their tadpoles on their backs (as well as Dendrobatinae, which already has a more proper name, poison frogs), I propose “Nurse frogs” as a general name for Aromobatinae. Within Aromobatinae, it is possible to apply already-constituted names for some genera, like Mannophryne, which some species have been already referred as collared frogs. Other genera include Anomaloglossus, created for those Aromobatines with a Median Lingual Process (Grant et al. 1997, 2006) and could be named Lingual Frogs. Aromobates, as the majority of species inhabits the cloud forest, could be named Cloud Frogs.  Rheobates are not the only riparian Aromobatines, so the name Creek Frogs does not apply; thus, I am comfortable naming Rheobates, Allobates and in general all species of Aromobatines as Nurse Frogs.

A further issue appears when confronted to the whole family Dendrobatidae. A combined naming of both subfamily names is not suitable, as “Poison Nurse Frogs” only apply to Dendrobatinae also (as all Dendrobatines are indeed nurse frogs); but the contrary case is not true, as Aromobatines are not poisonous. The original etymological source of the name Dendrobates is not helping either, as “Dendros” means “tree” in Greek, and of course, as all dendrobatid lovers must know, “bates” means “walker”. This name would be appropriate for many species of former Dendrobates (the current Ranitomeya), but not anymore for the genus sensu stricto after Grant et al. (2006), because none of the species (D. auratus, D. leucomelas, D. tinctorius –including D. azureus-, D. truncatus) is a strict arboreal species. I suggest naming all the family as suggested unconscientiously by Walls (1994) as Jewel Frogs. It is clear that the name applies for Dendrobatines, but even the usually dull-colored Aromobatines, lacking the bright colours of the Dendrobatines, are indeed small forest jewels, to be respected and protected.

Daly, J.W., G.B. Brown & M.Mensah-Dwumah. 1978. Classification of skin alkaloids from Neotropical poison-dart frogs. Toxicon 16: 163-188.

Ford, L. 1994. The phylogenetic position of the dart-poison frogs (Dendrobatidae) among anurans: an examination of the competing hypotheses and their characters. Ethology Ecology & Evolution 5: 219-231.

Grant, T., E. C. Humphrey & C. W. Myers 1997. The median lingual process of frogs: a bizarre character of old world ranoids disvovered in South American dendrobatids. American Museum Novitates, 3212: 1–40.

Grant, T., D.R. FROST, J.P. Caldwell, R. Gagliardo, C.F.B. Haddad, P.J.R. Kok, D.B. Means, B.P. Noonan, W.E. Schargel & W.C. Wheeler. 2006. Phylogenetic systematics of dart-poison frogs and their relatives (Amphibia: Athesphatanura: Dendrobatidae). Bulletin American Museum of Natural History 299: 1-262.

La Marca, E., Vences, M., & Lötters, S. 2002. Rediscovery and mitochondrial relationships of the dendrobatid frog Colostethus humilis suggest parallel colonization of the Andes by poison frogs. Studies on Neotropical Fauna and Environment 37 (3): 233-240.

Lötters, S., K.H. Jungfer, F.W.Henkel & W. Schmidt. 2007. Poison Frogs, Biology, Species & Captive Husbandry. Edition Chimaira & Serpents Tale. 668 pp.

Lynch, J.D. 1982. Two new species of poison-dart frogs (Colostethus) from Colombia. Herpetologica 38: 366-374.

Myers, C.W., J.W. Daly & B. Malkin. 1978. A dangerously toxic new frog (Phyllobates) used by Emberá Indians of western Colombia, with discussion of blowgun fabrication and dart poisoning. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 161:309-365.

Rothmair, M.E. 1994. Male territoriality and female mate selection in the dart-poison frog Epipedobates trivittatus (Dendrobatidae, Anura). Copeia 1994: 107-115.

Santos J. C, L. A. Coloma, K. Summers, J. P. Caldwell, R. Ree (2009) Amazonian amphibian diversity is primarily derived from late Miocene Andean lineages. PLoS Biol, 7, e1000056. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000056, 1–14.

Silverstone, P.A. 1973. Observations on the behaviour and ecology of a Colombian poison-arrow frog, the Koke-Pa (Dendrobates histrionicus Berthold). Herpetologica 29: 295-301.

Summers, K. & W. Amos. 1996. Behavioral, ecological, and molecular genetic analyses of reproductive strategies in the Amazonian dart-poison frog, Dendrobates ventrimaculatus. Behavioral Ecology 8: 260-267.

Walls, J.G., 1994.- Jewels of the rainforest. Poison frogs of the family Dendrobatidae. T.F.H. Neptune City: 288 pp.

*Note: The names suggested herein are not in conflict with the scientific names controlled by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and serve only as intent to prevent the incorrect and improper use of different and arbitrary appellatives.


Table 1

Family Subfamily Genus





“Jewel Frogs”




“Poison Frogs”

“Poison Dart Frogs”
Ameerega, Epipedobates, Silverstoneia, Hyloxalus, Adelphobates, Minyobates, Oophaga, Phyllobates, Ranitomeya
“Poison Frogs”
Colostethus, Hyloxalus, Silverstoneia
“Rocket Frogs”


“Nurse Frogs”

“Lingual Frogs”
“Cloud Frogs”
“Collared Frogs”
Allobates, Rheobates
“Nurse Frogs”