Probably more symbolic than any other animal in Costa Rica, the red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) reigns as the most iconic and widely recognized representative of Costa Rica’s natural beauty, and fittingly, the mascot of Costa Rica Guest Magazine. Many think this princely frog exists only as a caricature or clip art, but this little guy is real. In his regal robes, he wears a vivid neon-green body, blue flanks, white under belly and bright orange fingers and toes combined with its bulging red eyes make it a sight to behold, and hold we did. Contrary to popular belief, he’s not slimy, just cool to touch with sticky fingers and toes. Nature’s bright coloration often signals to predators that its non-palatable, though not always poisonous, as in this case.
Rain-forest amphibians thrive in much of the the country from the lowlands of 50 meters to 700 meters. They sleep during the day usually stuck to the bottoms of leaves with their eyes closed and body markings covered. If disturbed, they flash their bulging red eyes and reveal their huge, webbed orange feet and bright blue-and-yellow flanks. This technique, called startle-coloration, may give a predator slight pause or at least question their meal choice, enabling time to leap and escape to safety. Another theory is that the bright coloration of the frog may over-stimulate the nocturnal predator’s sensitive eyes, creating a ghost image that remains behind as the frog leaps away.
Natural beauty suppresses the typical reaction of “ooh, its a frog” and makes you want to reach and touch it to see if its real. With the help of a guide and proper instruction we were able to handle this beauty and he didn’t appear to mind at all but seemed to revel in the joy of your experience.
While our red-eyed frog is truly amazing, he’s not the only frog famous for its unique brilliance or display of color, and the next two also carry the menacing moniker of “Poison Dart Frog”. The term “poison dart” is derived from the use of the frog’s toxic secretions to coat the tips of arrows and blow darts used by indigenous Amerindians. The poison provides just enough toxin to kill a small animal and stun larger ones, while not generally strong enough to kill humans, it can make one ill and these little guys are best viewed at a distance and left unmolested.
The strawberry poison dart frog or blue jean frog (Dendrobates pumilio) is one of the most prominent frogs of Costa Rica. Usually seen on the forest floor where they move with small hops and exaggerated walking movements. It receives its name from its bright red body and denim blue legs or “blue jeans.” Found in many national parks and nature reserves, its very small dimensions of ¾ to 1 inch make it easy to miss. Its bright color warns predators of its toxicity. It is not known to be lethal to man but if touched its skin oils can have unpredictable effects on humans.
The green and black poison dart frogs (Dendrobates auratus) can also be found throughout the country. It lives on the rainforest floor but have often been spotted in the water that pools inside the leaves of bromeliads. A mother frog will take young frogs on her back and climb trees to place the babies into the bromeliad pools where they will grow and feed on the insects that fall into the water. Just another example of biological symbiosis in nature. While not the most toxic of the poison dart frogs and like most poison dart frogs, it will only release its poison if it feels threatened.
Frogs and more can be seen up close and personal in the wild or in a more tame environment designed for safe interaction at many wildlife sanctuaries. La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a great place to see these frogs during the daytime. Many lodges can arrange guided night time flashlight tours for around $5-15 that will introduce you to a different world of nocturnal critters. Within the landscaped grounds and walkways of your lodging, you can often find frogs near puddles of water, pools, water features and on the large leaves of tropical plants like heliconia and ginger. Frogs do make croaking noises so if you listen and follow the source with your eyes and flashlight you will see them. They are usually not jumpy and will stay put while you view and move on.
Editor’s Note: When walking the trails in any remote and tropical region, a guide is recommended, yet even with a guide that knows where danger is likely to be found (and avoided), their eyes cannot be everywhere. We strongly discourage you from stepping off trail, particularly at night and near known feeding areas. Our adult son stepped off-trail into a grove of heliconia in search of frogs only to find he was not the only one looking for frogs that night. He stepped only inches from a coiled Fer-de-Lance, one of the most aggressive and venomous snakes in the world. Fortunately a slow retreat resulted in a safe exit. If you choose to venture out on your own, please stay on main trails and watch where you step!