Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 44, Issue 3, pp 312–325 | Cite as

Sequestered Alkaloid Defenses in the Dendrobatid Poison Frog Oophaga pumilio Provide Variable Protection from Microbial Pathogens

  • Kyle J. Hovey
  • Emily M. Seiter
  • Erin E. Johnson
  • Ralph A. Saporito


Most amphibians produce their own defensive chemicals; however, poison frogs sequester their alkaloid-based defenses from dietary arthropods. Alkaloids function as a defense against predators, and certain types appear to inhibit microbial growth. Alkaloid defenses vary considerably among populations of poison frogs, reflecting geographic differences in availability of dietary arthropods. Consequently, environmentally driven differences in frog defenses may have significant implications regarding their protection against pathogens. While natural alkaloid mixtures in dendrobatid poison frogs have recently been shown to inhibit growth of non-pathogenic microbes, no studies have examined the effectiveness of alkaloids against microbes that infect these frogs. Herein, we examined how alkaloid defenses in the dendrobatid poison frog, Oophaga pumilio, affect growth of the known anuran pathogens Aeromonas hydrophila and Klebsiella pneumoniae. Frogs were collected from five locations throughout Costa Rica that are known to vary in their alkaloid profiles. Alkaloids were isolated from individual skins, and extracts were assayed against both pathogens. Microbe subcultures were inoculated with extracted alkaloids to create dose-response curves. Subsequent spectrophotometry and cell counting assays were used to assess growth inhibition. GC-MS was used to characterize and quantify alkaloids in frog extracts, and our results suggest that variation in alkaloid defenses lead to differences in inhibition of these pathogens. The present study provides the first evidence that alkaloid variation in a dendrobatid poison frog is associated with differences in inhibition of anuran pathogens, and offers further support that alkaloid defenses in poison frogs confer protection against both pathogens and predators.


Aeromonas Chemical defense Colony-forming unit Klebsiella Optical density 



This study was supported by an Exploration Fund Grant from The Explorers Club, a Roger Conant Grant In Herpetology from the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, a Grant-In-Aid of Research from Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, and John Carroll University. We thank the Organization for Tropical Studies La Selva Biological Research Station, the Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation Caño Palma Biological Station, Emily Khazan, Alex C. Gilman, and Andres Vega for their support in carrying out this research, as well as N. Becza, A. Blanchette, S. Bolton, M. Boyk, R. Drenovsky, M. Gade, M. Russell, N. Spies, M. Viloria, and N. Woodcraft for helpful editorial feedback and/or assistance collecting frogs. All collections of O. pumilio were approved by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) research and collection permit 2015-CR1420/SJ(#S1487) issued by the Costa Rican government. The John Carroll University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC protocol #1101) approved all methods used in the study.

Supplementary material

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Authors and Affiliations

  • Kyle J. Hovey
    • 1
  • Emily M. Seiter
    • 1
  • Erin E. Johnson
    • 1
  • Ralph A. Saporito
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyJohn Carroll UniversityUniversity HeightsUSA

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