Me sporting this season's must have accessory - the poison dart frog brooch, which doubles as a weapon. If attacked, simply ram the frog into your assailants mouth and hop away. So much more fashionable than mace.
Adolfo Amezquita is a professional frog licker. A dream job presumably, for a hopeless toad junkie like this blog’s great friend David Theiss. Except that Adolfo doesn’t lick them to get high, he does it to figure out how poisonous they are. This sounds like the very definition of foolhardy behaviour but Adolfo’s been slurping on frogs for over 20 years now and has lived to tell the tale, so there must be method to his madness.
I'm hanging out with Adolfo in his lab in Bogota, Colombia. He hands me a bright orange specimen and asks me if I want to feel the burn, the intensity of which tells you how poisonous it is. Nervously, I accept. Even though Adolfo’s done toxicology tests on these frogs and knows they’re safe to suck it still seems like a fantastically bad idea. Then there’s the fact that licking is really quite an intimate thing to do to another living creature and not my general getting-to-know-you opening gambit. I’m wondering if we should at least have casually dated before I wipe my tongue across his back. I don’t even know his name.
Nevertheless, I dive straight in with a big swipe and wait. Nothing. Adolfo tells me I have to excite him to get him to release the poison. Now I’m rubbing and licking the frog furiously and feeling very, very weird indeed, and it’s not because of the poison. I didn't come here to molest frogs and I’m sure I should be arrested for this.
Then a very strong burny numbness spreads across my tongue and lips. This is obviously the frog’s revenge for me jumping to first base without even swapping numbers. You can watch the whole sordid episode below if it hasn’t been banned by Vimeo already for its salacious salivary content.
There is one frog that Adolfo wouldn’t lick - the appropriately named Phyllobates terribilis. Terribilis is the original poison dart frog - the one that the Colombian Embera Indians used to hunt with before they discovered guns. Hunters would simply wipe their blow pipe darts on the frog’s skin and they could still kill a tapir up to a year later.
That's some sell-by date and makes this little yellow frog Mr Big in the poison stakes, the deadliest animal on the planet. One 5 cm frog packs enough punch to kill 10 men. He's more toxic than the king cobra, funnel web spider and blue ringed octopus put together. But there is of course a difference between venomous and poisonous and to get killed by this frog you'd have to have a very unlucky fall, face plant the forest floor and have a frog hop in your mouth. Or something else equally unlikely. Like flying to Bogota on a whim to lick one in a lab.
The toxin Terribilis produces, an alkaloid called batrachotoxin, is 250 times more potent than strychnine and works on the nervous system. Once it enters the bloodstream, in a matter of minutes the victim loses control of their muscles and dies by suffocation or cardiac arrest. Nasty stuff.
But poison dart frog's skin alkaloids are currently the subject of intense study for their medicinal use as muscle relaxants, heart stimulants and appetite suppressants. The only problem is that frogs raised in captivity don't produce the same toxins as those in the wild. It's all in the diet apparently - the frog's recycle and adapt their alkaloids from the ants, termites and other itchy scratchy insects they eat. The more varied the diet, the stronger and more complex the toxins. Another reason (if we needed one) for the urgent conservation of frogs and their habitats.
C'mon let's do the conga...3 of these candy-coloured cuties are in fact all the same species - an oddity that apparently makes no evolutionary sense as predators have to learn to avoid different colours and patterns
When Adolfo's not licking frogs, he's teaching them to watch TV. Or rather, lick TV. Even in the wild, there's a huge variation in the toxicity between species and even individuals within species and he and his students are trying to figure out how and why. One of their many experiments involves playing captive bred frogs cartoons of their favourite bugs (ants, mites and flies) to see if they preferentially choose those with useful alkaloids, which they did. The sight of a frog licking an animated ant off a screen shouldn't be funny, but I thought it was both amusing and amazing in equal measures (sorry for the squealing).
Adolfo recently discovered a brand new species of dart frog in Colombia. Despite looking completely different, it is actually the sister species of terriblis and toxicology tests have shown its skin also contains the same potent batrachotoxin brew. Adolfo has yet to give it a name and obviously I lobbied hard for Phyllobates amphibian avenger but he was having none of it.
Having an animal named after someone has become an important money spinner for scientists and conservationists to help fund their work, so he's taking offers. For a few thousand dollars the second most poisonous animal on the planet could bear your name, a rare honour indeed. Adolfo supports important conservation work with these frogs as well as trying to unravel their toxic secrets so it would be money well spent.