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Gray Treefrogs Reveal Clues About Climate Change

Feb 05, 2016 12:52 PM EST
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Gray treefrogs may provide new clues about climate change. A recent study from the University of Missouri suggests that increasing temperatures and climate variability might have an effect on the sounds produced by gray treefrogs, ultimately impacting breeding. 

"In a way, the decline of the polar bear has become the face of climate change; yet, gray tree frogs located in our own backyards might give us better clues about changes in the environment," Sarah C. Humfeld, a postdoctoral fellow of biological sciences, said in a news release. "Our team wanted to take a look at how rising temperatures might affect how female gray tree frogs interpret the signals given off by males and whether or not that might interrupt their breeding habits."

Gray treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) are a common species found in North America and throughout the eastern two-thirds of the country, including Missouri. They are characterized by sticky toe pads that help them cling to windows and by the male mating calls, or trills.

A chorus of males may seem like nothing out of the ordinary on warm summer evenings, but during breeding season females rely on these calls to locate a high-quality male of the correct species. However, the pitch and rate of mating calls can be temperature-dependent, often corresponding to rising or falling temperatures experienced by these cold-blooded animals.

"We already know that there's an optimal range for male mating calls," Humfeld explained in the university's release. "When temperatures rise, the pitch and trill rate of the calls can increase. What we didn't know was whether or not females' interpretation of those calls were dependent on temperature as well. We were interested in studying whether or not the responses of the female's auditory system shifted in tandem with the male's calls at different temperatures."

In their experiment, researchers elevated temperatures slightly to simulate a warmer climate and played back various types of recorded calls to see how the females would respond.

"We found that temperature didn't have a great effect on females and their interpretation of the mating call; however, these are still important findings," Humfeld added. "Amphibians are the veritable 'canary in the coal' mine, an indicator species that can send signals to scientists who study the effects of rising global temperatures.

"Knowing more about how their mating habits are affected by climate change can help us study the ways rising temperatures are affecting biodiversity. Findings from our study help add to the knowledge base needed to study thermal tolerance levels for various species and the steps conservation managers can take to maintain various ecological systems."

Their study was recently published in the journal Herptological Conservation and Biology.

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