The Evolution of Acoustic Signals in Poison Dart Frogs

By: Lia Casey, Jenna Cuzziere, and Rofail Wassef (Stonehill College, BIO 323: Evolution, Spring 2024)


Poison dart frogs, belonging to the Dendrobatidae family, are a fascinating group of amphibians renowned for their vibrant colors and potent toxins. These frogs are native to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, where they inhabit diverse habitats ranging from leaf litter on the forest floor to the canopy of trees. Their striking hues, which include shades of red, blue, yellow, orange, and green, serve as a warning to potential predators of their toxic nature. Along with changing colors, poison dart frogs also can utilize acoustic signals (noises animals produce) to attract potential mates. Despite their small size, these frogs can produce a wide array of calls, ranging from simple chirps to complex series of notes. Male poison dart frogs often use their calls to establish and defend territories, as well as to attract mates during the breeding season. Each species has its unique call, which helps in species recognition and mate selection. Additionally, acoustic signals may also serve as a form of communication between males and females during courtship rituals, or mate selection, aiding in the coordination of reproductive behaviors. The frequency, duration, and intensity of these calls can convey information about the caller’s size, health, and vigor, influencing the outcome of mating interactions. Furthermore, studies have shown that environmental factors such as temperature and humidity can impact the acoustic properties of these calls, highlighting the intricate interplay between biology and the environment in the vocal behavior of poison dart frogs. Feel free to tune into the podcast to learn more about this exciting topic!

Short podcast summarizing the paper. Image of a Poison dart frog. Acoustic signals in poison dart frogs serve as vital communication tools for territorial defense, mate attraction, and courtship rituals within their diverse rainforest habitats.
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            A 2023 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, written by Jeanette B. Moss, James P. Tumulty, and Eva K. Fischer, explores the relationship between acoustic signals and cooperative parental care in poison frogs. Parental care in poison dart frogs refers to the behaviors exhibited by adult frogs to ensure the survival and well-being of their offspring. The article, “Evolution of acoustic signals associated with cooperative parental behavior in a poison frog” focuses on the Allobates femoralis frog species, known for their complex social behaviors. Lead scientist Moss investigates how the acoustic signals used by these certain frogs have evolved in correlation with their cooperative parental care strategies. The research suggests that specific vocalizations from the frogs may serve as signals to coordinate parental activities, such as tadpole feeding and territorial defense, enhancing the efficiency of cooperative parental care. Through detailed analysis of these acoustic signals and their evolutionary patterns, the study sheds light on the intricate mechanisms underlying parental cooperation in amphibians.


             The unique calls of each frog species aid in species recognition and mate selection, ensuring successful reproduction and genetic diversity within their populations. Moreover, the ability to produce and perceive intricate vocalizations likely evolved as an adaptation to the complex social structures and breeding behaviors exhibited by poison dart frogs, enabling efficient coordination of reproductive activities and enhancing overall fitness in their competitive rainforest ecosystems. After learning about the three types of frog calls (advertisement, courtship, and egg-feeding), the researchers aimed to quantify and compare these three different call types. They conducted recordings in lab settings simulating natural environments and analyzed the acoustic properties of the calls. Results showed significant differences in most acoustic properties among the three call types.

Figure 2. Poison dart frog being recorded while using acoustic signals. During acoustic signals, poison dart frogs expand their vocal sacs located in their throats to amplify and project their calls effectively.


When questioning researcher Jeanette Moss, it was important to focus primarily on parental care within frogs, which was the starting point of the study. Moss explained that most frog species exhibit no parental care, but frog species’ R. imitator has evolved biparental care, in which both male and female frogs care for their offspring simultaneously. Moss also discussed how such complex social interactions often lead to the evolution of new communication methods among frogs. Moss then spoke more about frog communication, such as the use of acoustic signals, including advertisement calls (mate attraction and deterring competitors) and courtship calls.


Moss, Jeanette B., James P. Tumulty, and Eva K. Fischer. “Evolution of acoustic signals associated with cooperative parental behavior in a poison frog.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 120.17 (2023): e2218956120.

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