Costa RicaCosta Rica

Frogs of the Forest

Destination: Drake Bay

We docked at the Aguila de Osa Inn's private landing in a canopied boat, where a number of employees were expecting us. Also awaiting our arrival was a large crocodile sunbathing on a piece of driftwood near the dock, with its jaws wide open as if waiting for a meal to fall out of the sky and into its mouth.

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To the right sat a much smaller, less intimidating croc that looked equally hungry. Perhaps more astonishing was the group of local children that were swimming in the estuary just feet away, jumping off of a rope swing completely unfazed.

After unpacking my things, I walked the 10 minute trail paralleling the beach into Drake Bay. To my right, a flock of scarlet macaws swooped through the air. To my left, a family of dolphins surfaced, sometimes jumping toward the sky.

Because I am lazy, my favorite part of Drake Bay is the section located at sea level -- but the majority of the buildings are situated on a steep hill. The small town is composed of a few convenience stores, local restaurants, tour operators, and a deep, dramatic bay.

After wandering around for an hour, I needed directions and consequently stopped at a thatched roof hut with a sign reading "Nature Sea Trails." By the end of the conversation, I had been invited on a frog searching expedition. Spanish speakers love nicknames, and I fell in love with the tour before it even started -- mostly because the guide kept calling me "flaquita" -- which means the thin or skinny girl.

The trail began 10 minutes away from the office. Without warning, the jungle appeared denser and wetter -- like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Creatures rustling the trees turned out to be a family of spider monkeys, which we could hear but not see.

My guide Martin explained that we were not looking for just any frogs -- we were looking for the four poisonous varieties: the granular, the golfo dulce, the green and black, and the Talamanca rocket. They are only dangerous to humans if eaten or touched to the tongue, eyes, or an open cut. In the past, poison dart frogs were utilized by hunters who would spike the tips of their weapons with the frogs' toxin. Animals that were struck with the toxic darts or arrows would become slow, and sometimes even die from the effects.

Martin put a finger up to his mouth to indicate silence, and sat in a state of deep concentration. He then, as if instructed by an internal radar detector, went directly to a frog camping underneath a moist log along the riverbed.The creature had dark green legs and a black body, with stripes as red as a fire truck running parallel down its sides.

These are known as Golfo Dulce poison dart frogs, and they are endemic to the area. The guide quickly rattled off a few interesting facts about these creatures: they are normally found only during the day, are not territorial, and the males rather than the females incubate and tend to the eggs. Scientists are certain that poison dart frogs are not inherently poisonous, but rather gain their toxicity from their diet. Golfo Dulces are thought to absorb a noxious substance called batrachotoxin from eating melrid beetles. Those bred in captivity lack this element and are therefore harmless to humans.

Next, Martin discovered a granular poison frog. With a red bumpy body and green legs, this specimen is poetically known as "the red frog wearing green pants." Like the Golfo Dulce frog, it is also endemic to southern Costa Rica and northern Panama. Researchers theorize that this species gets its dangerous flavor from eating and processing the venom of a certain type of ant -- a process that distills the ant's toxicity by a factor of 300.

A bit disappointed that we failed to find all four species, Martin began enthusiastically telling me about leaf cutter ants, which littered the trail like a million little landmines. These red insects meticulously cut and crush leaves off of a variety of trees and plants, carefully choosing their food based upon which types of nutrients the group requires. They then compress all the newly sliced leaves and bury them a staggering ten feet underground.

One single colony can be comprised of a population of staggering proportions; between six and eight million ants can live in a single hill, a number nearly twice that of Costa Rica's human population.

After three hours in the jungle, it began to rain and my stomach was growling. I returned my borrowed rain boots and headed back to the hotel for lunch, taking care not to step on any ants along the way.

Frogs of the Forest in Pictures

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