Around 2008, I saw a photograph of a splendid poison frog that emerged following an expedition into the rainforest within Estado Amapa, Brazil in 2006. During that adventure, researcher Enrico Bernard (affiliated with Conservation International) snapped a photograph of what appeared to be a new species of poison frog (genus Dendrobates). Its arresting coloration had the researchers thoroughly intrigued and it was proposed that this animal might be a previously undescribed species.
For years, that photo escaped my memory until this week when I stumbled upon it again in one of my computer folders. This time, I was determined to dig deeper and get to the bottom of exactly what type of frog I was looking it. Was it indeed a new species or just a fantastic polymorphism? Well, it would appear to be the latter.
Since this photograph was taken, extensive genetic research on poison frogs in the Guiana Shield (where the photo was taken) has been performed and it would suggest that this frog is a member of the species Dendrobates tinctorius.
Now, I know what all my herpetology enthusiasts are thinking: “Just wait one second! This looks nothing like any of the D. tinctorius morphs I have seen before. Are you sure your information is accurate?”
Well, I could be wrong, but I have certainly tried to do my homework.
D. tinctorius is renowned for its wide variation in color patterns. Some are mostly black, others mostly yellow, and still others are mostly blue. In fact, as of 2007, there were at least 40 catalogued polymorphisms and this was eventually compounded by the revelation that it’s relative D. azureus might actually be a junior synonym of D. tinctorius. When you consider this extremely broad range of polymorphisms, it becomes more and more plausible that the gene pool of D. tinctorius could spit something out that looked like this spectacular frog. My suspicions were confirmed when I flipped through my copy of Poison Frogs (by Lotters, Jungfer, Henkle, and Schmidt) and found this little guy staring back at me from page 554, where it was billed as “Dendrobates tinctorius.”
So it would appear that the mystery is solved (for now at least.) I think this frog serves as an important reminder that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. While morphology is certainly a key part of taxonomy, the ability to delve into the genetic attributes of an organism is certainly an invaluable approach that shouldn’t be neglected; particularly when determining whether what you’re looking at represents species diversity or polymorphism.
(Below are some polymorphisms of the highly variable D. tinctorius for your consideration)