Friday, April 27, 2012

Justin Yeager: Name Your Poison - Nonfiction - A to Z Challenge

Who's Justin Yeager? What kind of poison?

Popa - poison frog. Photo courtesy Justin Yeager. Fund his project here
Escudo. Photo courtesy Justin Yeager

Poison frogs are exquisitely beautiful creatures. For a $1000 research donation, you could have a captive one named after you. For $12,000, researcher Justin Yeager will tattoo your name, along with - "funded my research when I was in need" - on his body. (UPDATE- PROJECT NOW CLOSED)

Now that's dedication.

Justin is from my hometown area, and is currently researching strawberry poison frogs on islands off the coast of Panama. Among other notable things, Justin relates that the markings on the frogs - which vary from island to island, even though the frogs are in close proximity to each other - are dependent on the frogs' diet. Environmental surroundings can also affect the frogs, so that changes to the amount of tree canopy, rainfall, soil composition, etc. can all have a negative impact on the tiny creatures.  More research is necessary to link specific plants to the vibrant colors and toxins of the frogs, as well as community outreach to teach locals and schoolchildren about land use and conservation matters.

Why should we care about frogs? Amphibian populations have been stressed - and disappearing - with frightening speed in recent years. Aside from the fact that extinctions can cause disruptions in the web of life, many plants and animals have medical uses or benefits which we haven't even discovered yet. There is currently research being conducted on drugs made from poison frog toxins (alkaloids) to use as cardiac treatments, muscle relaxers, and even painkillers. (Epibatidine was one such drug which had powerful analgesic properties, more so than even morphine, but proved too damaging to the gastrointestinal tract to be of use.)

I had questions for Justin: about whether handling the frogs was dangerous, whether frogs could be made less toxic, or more so, simply by controlling their diet, and whether he'd ever encountered any leeches or other nasties in the rainforest. Justin replied (along with the gorgeous photos you saw above)...

The frogs do indeed lose their toxicity as they're fed a diet that lacks the alkaloids.  We have a large number we breed here in the lab for other studies and on a diet of just fruit flies they lose their toxicity over time.  It's not clear if we could make a super toxic frog though.  There's a few potentials for that scenario though a) The frogs may be as toxic as they can be due to lacking sources, or b) increasing the toxicity could bear too great of a cost for the frogs (the toxins come at a cost physiologically).  Toxicity certainly varies greatly between species, populations, even between genders and seasonally.  As for the gloves, it's safe enough to handle D. pumilio without gloves, but we always wash our hands before eating, rubbing your face/eyes, etc.  It's not a risk you want to take...  The leeches I've never had in any abundance, although I've had a bot fly growing in my arm for a few months, and I've had Dengue fever twice.  That's not something I'd ever like to have again. 

Justin, who has a bachelor's from University of Delaware and master's from East Carolina University, is currently working toward his doctorate at Tulane.

Find Justin at ResearchGate , Justin , and LinkedIn

Justin Yeager


  1. Crunchy Frogs? ;)

    pretty pictures...deadly things. Interesting post, Li.

  2. I remember seeing these gorgeous poisonous frogs in Costa Rica. Very admirable. We have a dull litlte brown water frog now and you got me thinking about him. He may need a friend.

  3. Who knew there were so many different kinds of frogs. They seem to be disappearing in Oz seeing we have so much drought. This was great to learn about Li.

    Have Roland up today along with Lynda Young.


  4. Very interesting post - particularly if you are into frogs or French

  5. I am glad to read this. I didn't know there were poison frogs but I'm on the look out now. Thanks for visiting me. I'll be back.