Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Blue Poison-Dart Frog: The Times Gets It All Wrong

The Times really should check its sources and material before publication. Today’s edition has a short article that states:

British scientists have successfully bred a rare species of frog that contains enough poison to kill up to ten adults. The blue poison dart frog, which is 2.5cm long, is found in the tropical forests of Costa Rica and Brazil. Experts at Walford and North Shropshire College have successfully bred one in their laboratory…

What a load of cock. Where did The Times get such an inaccurate story?

The blue poison dart frog was originally described as Dendrobates azureus. It was discovered in 1968 in mountainous island in the Sipaliwini savanna of Suriname. It was named by its discoverer (Hoogmoed) in 1969. He writes:

In 1970 I returned to the Sipaliwini savanna on another expedition and at that time I collected 10 specimens of D. azureus from the Vier Gebroeders forest island, and transported them alive to Holland, where they formed the basis of the first, and only legal, breeding colony of D. azureus. All other colonies were established with smuggled specimens, from which the present specimens in captivity are descendants1.

Private breeders in the Netherlands and Germany soon began to breed these frogs and they entered the open market. Some zoos (Edinburgh was one) were also keen to breed them because of reports that their habitat was threatened by fire. In short, D. azureus was, for a short time, treated as an endangered species.

I bought adults and tadpoles from Dutch breeders in the early 1990s and the late Bob Davies and I bred them. They are now commonly kept and bred in captivity throughout the world and there is no justification whatsoever in the claim published in The Times. Indeed, an quick search shows them available at £60 each from a British dealer. As the IUCN website3 says:

This species breeds easily in captivity, and is found in zoos around the world.

Having seen these frogs alongside coloured forms of Dendrobates tinctorius, the thought of many of us was that they were a local form of D. tinctorius. Other than in colour they resembled D. tinctorius and there was no evidence that tinctorius and azureus were sympatric. This suspicion was confirmed in 2006: D. azureus was demoted to a junior synonym of D. tinctorius (summary in 2).

All the information anybody needs, from taxonomy to distribution, is readily available from the IUCN website where D.tinctorius rates ‘least concern’3.

So, here’s one we bred earlier:

The reason for my writing about this claim here is to highlight a common and growing problem. Zoos and wildlife collections are forever putting out press statements that they have bred such-and-such and that it is ‘endangered’. Such claims are rarely true and even when it is correct that the species in question is endangered, or in some other less than safe category in the wild, there are often so many in captivity that zoos do not know what to do with them. Not only do such silly or trivial claims play straight into the hands of members the anti-zoo lobby who know a false claim when they see one but detract from the hard-earned achievements of those involved in ex-situ conservation.

I now expect to see reports that such and such an organisation has bred axolotls — critically endangered in the wild. I shall probably read the report while drinking coffee in Dobbie’s Garden Centre, yards away from tanks containing axolotls at £22 each.