Golden poison frogs are often considered innocuous due to their small size and bright colours, but wild specimens are lethally toxic due to the batrachotoxins stored in their skin glands. Phyllobates terribilis is considered to be the most poisonous frog in the world.
The skin of one small golden poison frog can contain between 700 and 1,900 µg of toxins, enough to kill 10,000 mice or 10-20 people! These toxins prevent nerves from transmitting impulses, leaving the muscles in an inactive state of contraction, which can lead to heart failure. Direct contact with the skin of a wild golden poison frog can cause a burning sensation that lasts several hours.
The only known predator is a small tropical, arboreal snake called Erythrolamprus epinephelus, which mainly feeds on juvenile frogs because its mouth is too small to swallow adults. It is believed that the snake’s saliva contains a substance that breaks down the toxins of golden poison frogs. This snake is also resistant to the toxins produced by Dendrobates and Atelopus species.
Humans are the overwhelming cause of declining populations of golden poison frogs. While the Emberá and Noanama tribes capture these frogs to extract their toxic secretions (which are rubbed on blowgun darts used for hunting), the greatest threat to Phyllobates is the destruction of their natural habitat (deforestation, intensive agriculture, use of pesticides and fertilizers, and various types of pollution).
Golden poison frogs are also victims of cutaneous chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that attacks all species of amphibians and is wreaking havoc on frog populations all over the globe.