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Shape-Shifting Frog Discovered in Ecuador

Mar 24, 2015 02:40 PM EDT
mutable rainfrog

(Photo : Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society)

Scientists have discovered an incredible, shape-shifting frog species in the western Andean cloud forest of Ecuador, and it just may be the first ever amphibian that can rapidly change its skin texture, a new study says.

Researchers claim its ability to reflect its surroundings may enable the frog to camouflage itself from birds and other predators - however, this has yet to be proven.

Katherine Krynak, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University, and her husband Tim Krynak, project manager at Cleveland Metroparks Natural Resources Division, originally spotted the new species, called the Mutable rainfrog (Pristimantis mutabilis), in 2006 at nature preserve Reserva Las Gralarias. The couple nicknamed the small, spiny frog "punk rocker" frog for its thorn-like spines.

However, it wasn't until sometime later that they realized its shape-shifting skills. After capturing the marble-sized frog, Katherine set the creature on a smooth white sheet of plastic and saw that it wasn't punk-like at all - it was smooth-skinned. Naturally, they assumed that they had regrettably picked up the wrong frog.

"I then put the frog back in the cup and added some moss," she said in a statement. "The spines came back... we simply couldn't believe our eyes, our frog changed skin texture! I put the frog back on the smooth white background. Its skin became smooth."

"The spines and coloration help them blend into mossy habitats, making it hard for us to see them," Katherine added. "But whether the texture really helps them elude predators still needs to be tested."

During the next three years, a team of fellow biologists studied the frogs. It turns out that the mutable rainfrog can shift its skin texture in just a little more than three minutes.

While this discovery appears to be one-of-a-kind, a separate research team at Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica in Ecuador likewise identified Primates sobetes - a relative with similar markings but about twice the size of P. mutabilis that has the same supposedly "unique" shape-shifting trait. Until now, it had never been reported.

Because the appearance of animals has long been one of the keys to identifying them as a certain species, the researchers believe this could mean many species have been missed.

The Krynaks, along with fellow experts, plan to continue studying mutable rainfrogs and further document their behaviors, lifecycle and texture shifting, and estimate their population in order to better understand the species. Also, this may help in determining whether P. mutabilis and P. sobetes are the only species within this branch of Pristimantis frogs to have this capability, or if it's a trait also shared by their relatives. They hope to learn whether they retained it from an ancestor while relatives did not, or whether the trait evolved independently in each species.

The new animal and its skin texture plasticity are described in an article in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society that is scheduled for publication this week.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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