The relationship between alkaloid-based chemical defenses and diet in dendrobatid poison frogs

Ralph Anthony Saporito, Florida International University


Chemical defenses are common among organisms and represent some of the most complex adaptations for avoiding predation, yet our understanding of the ecological nature of these systems remains incomplete. Poison frogs are a group of chemically defended organisms that are dependent entirely on diet for chemical defense. In this study, I identified the dietary arthropods responsible for chemical defense in poison frogs, described spatial and temporal patterns in alkaloid composition of poison frogs, and established links between patterns of variation in alkaloid defense and arthropod diet in poison frogs. Identifying dietary sources and studying patterns of variation in alkaloid composition is fundamental to understanding the ecology and evolution of chemical defense in poison frogs. The dendrobatid poison frog Oophaga pumilio shares many alkaloids in common with other poison frogs and is known to vary in alkaloid composition throughout its geographic range. I designed my dissertation to take advantage of these characteristics and use O. pumilio as a model species for the study of chemical defense in poison frogs. Here, I identified siphonotid millipedes as a source for spiropyrrolizidine alkaloids, formicine ants as a source for pumiliotoxin alkaloids, and oribatid mites as dietary sources for the majority of alkaloids found in poison frogs. I found that alkaloid composition varied spatially and temporally, on both small and large scales, within and among populations of O. pumilio. Alkaloid variation between populations was related to geographic distance, and closer populations tended to have alkaloid compositions more similar to each other than to distant populations. The findings of my study suggest that oribatid mites are the most important dietary source of alkaloids in poison frogs. However, overall alkaloid defense in poison frogs is based on a combination of dietary arthropods, including mites, ants, millipedes, and beetles. Variation in chemical defenses of poison frogs is due to (1) spatial and temporal differences in the presence of alkaloids in certain arthropods and (2) differences in the availability of certain alkaloid-containing arthropods, which are likely the result of differences as well as successional changes in forest structure among locations and through time.

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Recommended Citation

Saporito, Ralph Anthony, "The relationship between alkaloid-based chemical defenses and diet in dendrobatid poison frogs" (2007). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. AAI3279235.