First fluorescent frogs might see each others’ glow

Natural Day-Glo may play a role in amphibian’s fights and flirtations

polka dot frog

NATURAL DAY-GLO  A polka dot frog, the first amphibian shown to fluoresce under ultraviolet light, has complex courtship and male fights.

C. Taboada et al/PNAS 2017

Could fluorescence matter to a frog? Carlos Taboada wondered. They don’t have bedroom black lights, but their glow may still be about the night moves.

Taboada’s question is new to herpetology. No one had shown fluorescence in amphibians, or in any land vertebrate except parrots, until he and colleagues recently tested South American polka dot tree frogs. Under white light, male and female Hypsiboas punctatus frogs have translucent skin speckled with dark dots. But when the researchers spotlighted the frogs with an ultraviolet flashlight, the animals glowed blue-green. The intensity of the glow was “shocking,” says Taboada of the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales “Bernardino Rivadavia” in Buenos Aires.

And it is true fluorescence. Compounds in the frogs’ skin and lymph absorb the energy of shorter UV wavelengths and release it in longer wavelengths, the researchers report online March 13 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But why bother, without a black bulb? Based on what he knows about a related tree frog’s vision, Taboada suggests that faint nocturnal light is enough to make the frogs more visible to their own kind. When twilight or moonlight reflects from their skin, the fluorescence accounts for 18 to 30 percent of light emanating from the frog, the researchers calculate.

FROG GETS THE BLUE-GREENS Under white light, a polka dot frog’s translucent skin shows hints of lymph, colored blue-green by a compound called biliverdin that also turns its bones slightly cyan. C. Taboada et al/PNAS 2017
Polka dot frogs, common in the Amazon Basin, have plenty to see in the tangled greenery where they breed. Males stake out multilevel territories in vast floating tangles of water hyacinths and other aquatic plants. When a territory holder spots a poaching male, frog grappling and wrestling ensues. Taboada can identify a distinctive short treble bleat “like the cry of a baby,” he says, indicating a frog fight.

Males discovering a female give a different call, which Taboada could not be coaxed to imitate over Skype. The polka dot frogs’ courtship is “complex and beautiful,” he says. For instance, a male has two kinds of secretion glands on the head and throat. During an embrace, he nudges and presses his alluring throat close to a female’s nose. If she breaks off the encounter, he goes back to clambering in rough figure eights among his hyacinths, patrolling for perhaps the blue-green ghost of another chance.

Susan Milius

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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