Complexities and Strategies for keeping
and breeding D. tinctorius and D. azureus
The Dendrobates tinctorius color forms, as well as the closely related Dendrobates azureus, are among the most popular of the whole dart frog family. Many of my customers buy these frogs as beginner or starter dart frogs, and in many ways, I can't recommend them enough, they are incredibly beautiful, and are among the boldest of dart frogs. They are also generally large frogs, which is great for display purposes. But there is one complexity which always leads me to caution the beginner who wants to try these frogs, and that is that they don't typically do well in groups, and many a beginner has started with three or four of these frogs in a twenty gallon tank, only to have them crash one by one, or have one or more not do well.
Unfortunately many beginners are not aware of the fact that even as juveniles these frogs can be so territorial that keeping two or three together can lead to the death of a frog. While juveniles will generally not show any outward “fighting” they can intimidate their tankmates through other subtle ways, resulting in the losing frog doing poorly. Animals of breeding age will sometimes fight almost continuously until the subordinate frog dies. In the case of the breeding age animals, the typical scenario is to have a female attacking another female, most often if there is a male present in the tank. After hearing all this, you may be wondering if you should move on to another type of dart frog entirely, but there are ways to deal with these problems, and still end up with some nice fat healthy adult tinctorius or azureus.
The first and simplest option is to obtain a sexed pair of sub adults, or adults. I regularly offer sexed pairs of D. azureus, and often have pairs of one or more tinctorius forms. Male female pairs are very likely to get along fine, although believe it or not, some females will even harass males. But this is not particularly common, and in the past few years I have sold hundreds of pairs of D. azureus and D. tinctorius, and most of them are out there doing well and breeding right now. Sexed pairs are more expensive than juveniles, but typically only cost about what four juveniles would cost, so when you consider how much of a head start you get by choosing the sexed pair, as well as the headaches you will avoid, the extra expense is worth it for many people.
However in many cases, sexed pairs of a particular tinctorius morph will not be available, and the only option will be to obtain a group of froglets or juveniles. How you raise these will be critical to determining your success. You have choices, from very safe to very risky, in terms of how you keep them. The first and safest is to keep each frog in its own container until you can sex it. This will result in the lowest incidence of problems, and obviously eliminate territorial issues during this important stage of the juvenile frogs' growth. A second method would be to keep the frogs in twos, paired by keeping the closest in size together. Make sure there is always plenty of food, and immediately remove any frog that does not seem to be thriving. Many people watch while a frog begins to decline, and wait for it to become obviously weakened before doing anything, but it is of utmost importance to act promptly, as the speed with which you pull the weaker frog will be a determining factor in whether it comes back or becomes stunted, or even dies. A third method is to keep three to five in a larger tank, say a twenty or thirty gallon, and hope for the best. Again, immediately remove any frogs that are not keeping up with their tank mates. If you are not aggressive about removing the weaker frogs, this method will almost always result in some mortality or at least some frogs that do not grow at a pace that approaches that of the more successful frogs in the tank. By the way, the fighting which goes on may not be noticeable, your first clue may be that one animal is not growing as fast as its tankmates, or is no longer feeding well.
Regardless of how you are keeping them, as time goes on, begin checking your animals for signs of their sex. Males have widened toe pads on the front feet, and the females typically have toepads on their front feet which are not much wider than their toepads on their hind feet. Also males tend to be smaller than females, with a subtle difference in body shape. This difference in shape might best be described as the males being flatter, and the females being more hunchbacked, and deeper in body. (Click here for some photos of males and females so you can get an idea of how they differ) Unfortunately it is by no means an exact science to sex these animals, in particular when they are young. As time goes on, try to keep any you think are females separated from each other, to keep them from fighting, or otherwise stressing each other out. When they are around ten months old, or younger if you are able to make a good guess at a sexed pair earlier, you could set up any pairs in the breeder tanks you have set up for them. The remainder of the frogs can be traded for other frogs, or you could try to go out and pair up your excess. Keep in mind that there seems to be a skewed sex ratio in these frogs, in favor of females. Approximately 65% (ok, that's a guess!) of tinctorius and azureus are females, so if you wind up with extra females, you may have a more difficult time pairing them up than if you wind up with extra males.
Young adult D. azureus and tinctorius breed fairly easily, given the high humidity and moderate temperatures they prefer. Breeding may begin as early as ten months, but more typically twelve to fourteen months. Keep your breeders in the low to mid seventies, and feed them daily, to every other day. Tank setup is not of particular importance, once again though, they need high humidity. In addition to the daily spraying, either by hand or with a misting system, the lid needs to be fully sealed, at least during the breeding season. In standard aquariums, I prefer a two piece glass lid, one larger stationary piece at the back for the light, etc, and an additional smaller piece for the front moving panel.
Give your frogs a good place to lay their eggs, such as a plastic petri dish, or a margarine tub lid. Offer some shelter over this spot, such as a coconut hut, or a small plastic flowerpot with an arch cut in the side, or just a piece of corkbark. The first eggs laid by your frogs will probably be bad, so don't be surprised if this happens. Just be patient, and they will figure things out. Once they get going these frogs can lay fairly large numbers of eggs, and produce lots of baby frogs. I have had females lay a clutch every five to six days for up to a year with out any sign of strain.
When you begin to see courtship, check the hut for eggs each night, or early the next morning, so you do not interrupt them during egglaying and fertilization. When you find eggs, keep them hydrated and damp but do not immerse them in water. Remove obviously bad eggs, and other debris. When the tadpoles are beginning to erupt from the eggs, set them up in individual containers, such as yogurt cups, or deli cups - I use the 16-ounce size. The tadpoles will accept a wide variety of foods, such as flake fish foods, or powdered algae. I use a one to one mix of chlorella and spirulina. These algae can be obtained from health food stores, or purchased in our online terrarium store. I sprinkle them on the surface of the water until the water is a very light green. Less is better than more, just watch and you will get an idea how much they are eating. Water should be changed about every three to four days with this method. Froglets will take between two and three months to emerge from the water with this method, typically around sixty days.