Thursday, April 21, 2011

Frog Month! Fun Frogs Vol. 3

April is drawing to a close, but there's still time for a few more frogs. And today's offering must be the strangest yet. Depending on how you feel about alternative forms of reproduction, you may want to save this post until after you've eaten...

Fun Frog!

Surinam toads (Pipa pipa) are just odd all the way around. First off, they're called toads, despite being very much aquatic. They inhabit the muddy or even polluted bottoms of bodies of water in the Amazon basin and only surface for gulps of air. Secondly, they look "wrong". Their eyes are tiny, lidless, and not quite in the place you'd think to look for them. Their front toes have star-shaped sense organs splayed out from the tips, and their triangular heads seem to have extra skin around the jaws. Overall, they look like rubbery, half-rotten leaves. And then there's the way they reproduce...

Photo from the Honolulu Zoo
After a complex mating dance the male positions himself so that the female can lay eggs on his stomach. He then fertilizes them, carefully rolls over, and deposits the eggs onto the sponge-like skin of the female's back. We're not talking a couple of eggs here, either. A normal clutch will contain between 60 and 100 potential froglets!

Within a day the female's skin will swell around the eggs, and in a little over a week each egg will occupy its own little chamber. And there they stay, sometimes for up to 20 weeks. The babies emerge as fully formed tiny frogs by pushing through the top membrane of their "cell".  Want to see what that looks like? There's a video here. But be warned: it's the strangest thing you will see all day.

Frog Tip!

Do you own a pool? Frogs, not surprisingly, sometimes mistake pools for ponds. But once they get in they can't get out and often drown! Happily, there's a simple, low-tech, inexpensive device called a Critter Skimmer that will give frogs a way out of your pool. Want an even lower-tech option? Black snakes are major predators on many types of frogs. Buying a few plastic black snake replicas and scattering them around the perimeter of your pool may keep frogs out, but it might keep ophidiophobic folks out too, so you're probably better off just getting the skimmer.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Frog Month! Fun Frogs Vol. 2

Relative size difference between tadpole and adult frog
Ready for another fun frog? Of course you are! After all, this is April. Some people still think of April as Tax Month, but I think you'll agree that it's much more fun to think of it as Frog Month. And so, without further ado...

Fun Frog!

Today's offering is the paradoxical frog (Pseudis paradoxa), also know as the shrinking frog. I have to admit, the name of this frog alone makes it one of my favorites. But wait, there's a bonus! This frog is not weird in name only. Oh no, it's weird in actual fact: the tadpole stage of this amphibian is much larger than than the adult. Why this should be is something of a mystery, and highly unusual too. I would guess that this frog has evolved so that its life stages occupy quite different niches. Before the tadpole was seen to actually become the adult, they were even believed to be two different species. Prior to that exciting discovery you might have been excused for not giving this frog a second look. In fact, it would have been hard to give it a first look. In the wild they are just that cryptic.

But their bizarre ability to shrink is not their only secret. These frogs might someday help humans beat diabetes. They produce a compound which was shown in 2008 to stimulate production of insulin in compromised pancreatic cells. Even better, it the compound did it with no toxic effects. Why do these little South American frogs make a diabetes drug in their skin? It seems to have some sort of anti-microbial effect too, with the insulin production a happy accident.

Frog Tip!

An easy one today: don't set your pet frog free in the wild! Non-native frogs (and animals of all kinds) wreak havoc with wild populations. They can introduce disease, out-compete or even eat native frogs, or may die an awful death from being set loose in an area that they can't cope with. What to do instead? Most areas have local herpetological clubs. Check out their websites for hints on ways to find a home for your unwanted frog. You'll both be happy you did!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Frog Month! Fun Frogs Vol. 1

Photo curtesy of Save the Frogs
Fun Frog!

First up for April, the Month of Frog Celebration, is the gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus sp.). This unassuming little amphibian topped out at just over 2 inches long and looked like any conventional "slimy frog". But wait! She had a secret!

The females of this genus had the ability to turn off production of their gastric juices, thereby turning themselves into incubators for baby frogs. After external fertilization of her eggs by a male the female would literally swallow them. The eggs would hatch into tadpoles in her stomach and gradually morph into froglets over a six week period.

Photo from flikr, showing a new froglet
As this happened her stomach would expand, eventually filling almost her entire body cavity. Even her lungs would collapse in on themselves, necessitating increased gas transfer through her skin. Needless to say, she refrained from eating during this time. After the baby frogs were done "cooking" she would open her mouth and pop them out one by one over the span of several days. Occasionally, if spooked, she would instead projectile vomit the whole brood in one go. 

Sadly, the gastric-brooding frog appears to be extinct. First discovered in the 1920s in Queensland, Australia, they haven't been seen since the 1980s. Apart from the fact that their passing makes the world a less-cool place, they also take with them the secret of how they turned off the acids in their stomachs. That bit of information held great promise for human suffers of gastric ulcers. What killed them? It's hard to say. Their preferred habitat was clear, cool, fast running water in pristine rainforest, something that's getting harder and harder to find now. Climate change and logging were probably the main factors. 

Frog Tip!

Want to help extant frogs escape the fate of the gastric-brooding frog? One simple thing you can do is just use less water. Turn off the tap when you brush your teeth. Or put timers on your sprinklers. More and more water is being diverted for human use, water that once flowed through streams and rivers where frogs breed. Just think of how many tadpoles could live in the accumulated drippings from one leaky faucet! Remember, the frog you save might just cure your ulcer.

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's Frog Month!

Yay, Frog Month! That magical time that only comes once a year, when frogs are busy courting and the world is busy honoring them!

So, maybe it doesn't work quite like that. Frogs do court during April, but the world pretty much ignores them. Which is too bad, really. Frogs are amazing, and up to this point in time have been unbelievably prolific. Even today there are over 5,500 species of anurans (that's frogs and toads to you and me). But frogs across the world are declining. The reasons are complex: higher levels of pollution (frogs are very absorptive critters after all), less of an ozone layer and so more solar radiation, climate change... The list is endless, and can seem overwhelming. But fear not! As a frog advocate, I'm here to tell you about some things that might make a difference to frogs. Won't you join me in celebrating Frog Month?

Let's start with an easy one: just spread the word! Many people don't ever spare a thought for frogs. It's an over-used metaphore, but frogs really are something of the "canary in the coal mine". Environmental hazards hit them before they hit other animals, humans included. But that doesn't mean that we don't drink the same water, breath the same air, and eat the same foods as our amphibian friends. Well, maybe we don't eat the same foods. But we do ingest many of the same pesticides! So just by making choices that are good for frogs and encouraging others to do the same, we can create a world that's more livable for us. It's a simple test: is that weed killer going to seep into the water supply and poison a frog? Well, then you probably don't want to drink it either. Think about frogs while you shop, and I guarantee you'll make more environmentally friendly purchases. Want to learn more? Visit Save the Frogs for more frog facts than you could shake a frog-egg-laden sodden branch at!

I'll be running frog-heavy blog posts throughout the month of April, so check back if you're a frog fan. If you happen to be a ranidaphobic (that would be a frog-fearer), on the other hand, consider yourself warned! And happy Frog Month!
All photos from Save the Frogs

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Yes, There Really is Such a Thing as a Blobfish

Photo from the London Telegraph
I have to admit, this is a new one to me. I would have never known about this creature if it hadn't been for the Swimmies of Doom, but after seeing the photo I had to find out more.

Turns out, this is indeed a real critter. A critter that the Telegraph called "the world's most miserable-looking fish". Other sites call it "the world's ugliest fish" and "the world's most unattractive fish". All of this seems a bit unfair, given that the blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus) lives at depths up to 800 m where the pressure is dozens of times that experienced in the sunlit world. Obviously, he's going to collapse into a blobby mess at sea level! After all, we don't look too good after being exposed to, oh, say, the vacuum of space.

Illustration from Wikipedia
But then again, this is a fish almost entirely made of a gelatinous fatty material. A couple of articles even refer to him as "the fat-head fish". His lifestyle is pretty blobby too: his squishy body is only slightly less dense than water so he is able to float serenely over the ocean floor waiting for food to pass in front of his mouth without expending any energy on swimming. He does, however, seem to "sit" on eggs. I tried to find out more about this adaptation, but came up empty. I suppose there aren't too many ichthyologists out there making the study of the blobfish their life's work. Sigh.

Sadly, this bizarre, inoffensive, and ironically inedible fish is being driven to the brink of extinction by deep sea trawlers. As technology allows for fishing at greater and greater depths more fish are being snagged as bycatch. As you can imagine, the blobfish isn't very good at getting out of the way of these huge nets, and so ends up being hauled to the surface where the pressure difference kills him. I don't know about you, but I feel that the world would be a poorer place without the blobfish in it!

Monday, April 4, 2011


Hand cut aluminum hyena pin
It's been a while since I've been asked to make a hyena, but yesterday I received an order for a pair of earrings in grey. I sell my anodized aluminum jewelry in the Tapir and Friends Animal Store (the webshop of the Tapir Preservation Fund), a marketplace devoted to raising money for tapir conservation by selling fun animal items of all species.

Many people don't care for hyenas, associating them with spooky behavior and a diet of carrion. But that doesn't mean they don't have any fans. I, for one, am fascinated by their weird lifestyle and bizarre vocalizations. For instance, did you know that they can live in groups of up to 80 which are led by females? Or that, despite looking superficially like dogs they are actually more closely related to cats?

If you like hyenas too, keep reading! It turns out that you can find some interesting hyena art if you hunt a little yourself.

Like this sculpture from Fenrislorsrai's etsy shop. It's rare to see a hyena depicted as doing anything other than fighting over a scrap of bone, but here's one engaged in child rearing! I like their expressive ears.

There's also this Victorian illustration from 1894, found in Petite Poulailler's Zibbet shop, which shows some very fluffy hyenas in a more traditional manner. Funny how the artist took more care with the ruin in the background than he did with the ribcage that his subjects are fighting over.

If you want to show off your hyena pride on a wall or laptop, there's always the decal option. I can honestly say this is the first vinyl decal I've ever seen of this particular animal! It's from Lunar Scream's Artfire shop.

Or maybe you don't have room for one of the above options? There's always this tiny replica, also available in the Tapir and Friends Animal Store.

Happy hyena Monday, everyone!

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