A new species of frog is the first known vertebrate able to change the texture of its own skin. The frogs, which live among mossy forests in Ecuador, sprout protrusions called tubercles to mimic their surroundings. When moved away from moss, the tubercles recede.
Named Pristimantis mutabilis, or the “mutable rainfrog” this trait has led them to be called “punk frogs” by their researchers, named so for their Mohawk-like protrusions.
Though the tiny, marble-sized frogs (23 millimeters) were discovered back in 2006, their mutative powers have only been documented recently. A bit like Michigan J. Frog’s refusal to perform in front of audiences, the frogs were able to fool their captors, causing them to think they had repeatedly collected the wrong specimen. As Katherine Krynak, biologist at Case Western Reserve University puts it, “We took a specimen back to the house in a cup to photograph it, and when we looked in the morning, we thought we had grabbed the wrong frog. We put the frog back in the cup with some moss, and soon, it had the spines again.” The research team set up cameras to take pictures of the frogs every ten seconds to monitor the changes.
Following the discovery, the researchers found another Ecuadorean frog, Prismantis sobetes would demonstrate the same skill. The discovery of these variable species poses challenges to amphibian taxonomists and field biologists, who traditionally use skin texture and the presence or absence of tubercles as discrete traits in diagnosing and identifying species.
The next step is to find how many known species are also capable of this shapeshifting trait – one that, until now, was reserved for select marine invertebrates like cuttlefish and the octopus.
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