Four years ago, I wrote about a group of African frogs that remind me of the Marvel Comics character Wolverine, who fights with three retractable claws in each arm. The frogs, belonging to the family Arthroleptidae, also have bone claws in their feet. They use these in defence, as many naturalists discovered to their dismay.
They’re not alone. On another continent, Noriko Iwai from the University of Tokyo has studied a different species – the Otton frog – that carries a similar bony spike in its foot. It’s large for a frog, growing to around 12 centimetres in length. The males use their spikes as anchors to latch onto females, and flick-knives for duelling with rival males.
Stranger still, the Otton frog houses its spike in a “thumb”, which other frogs lack. Frogs have five toes on their hind legs, just like us, but most species have just four on their front legs. There are exceptions, though, and the Otton frog is one of them. It has a fifth front toe – a “pseudothumb” – which houses its spike.
Australians love to destroy cane toads. Ever since these animals were first introduced in 1935, they have run amok, eating local animals and poisoning any that try to eat them. They’re captured and slaughtered in traps, bludgeoned with golf clubs, and squished with veering tyres, but still they continue to spread. Now, Michael Crossland from the University of Sydney has discovered an unlikely ally in the quest to control the cane toad: the cane toad.
Along with their unappealing appearance and milky poison, cane toads are also cannibals. Older tadpoles will hunt and eat eggs that have been recently laid in the same pond, to do away with future competitors. Crossland reasoned that the eggs must release a substance that the tadpoles can detect, so he mushed them up in his lab and separated out their chemical components.
He discovered that the eggs secrete bufadienolides – the same substances that make the milky poisons of the adult toads so deadly to Australia’s fauna. Ironically, the same chemicals that protect the eggs later in life also attract cannibalistic tadpoles. And that makes them excellent bait.
In a small office north of London, Stephanie Pierce from the Royal Veterinary College is watching a movement that hasn’t been seen for 360 million years. On her computer, she has resurrected the long-extinct Ichthyostega – one of the earliest four-legged animals to creep about on land. By recreating this iconic beast as a virtual skeleton, Pierce has shown that while it looked like a giant salamander, it couldn’t possibly have walked like one. It had some of the planet’s earliest bony legs, but they weren’t very good at taking steps.
Ichthyostega hails from the Devonian period, a time in Earth’s history when swimming transformed into walking. Fish invaded the land and evolved into the first tetrapods—four-limbed animals that include amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Muscular fins used for steering and balance evolved into legs for walking.
Since its discovery over 50 years ago, Ichthyostega has been an icon of this pivotal transition. Some 300 specimens have been found but many are incomplete, flattened or distorted. Pierce’s new model provides the best look yet at the animal’s skeleton. “It makes Ichthyostega a bit more tangible,” she says. “It’s not just a fossil laying in a rock now. It’s an animal that’s coming to life.”
Pierce built her virtual skeleton by putting dozens of Ichthyostega specimens in powerful CT-scanners, choosing only the best preserved ones out of the 300 or so in existence. “The front end of the animal was mainly composed from one beautifully preserved specimen called ‘Mr Magic’,” she says.
It was painstaking work. These fossils are so old that chemically, they are almost identical to the rocks around them. By eye, the bones stand out. To the scanners, they blend in. Pierce spent over two years scanning the specimens and building her model, but the results were worth it. “This has been on the wish-list for years,” says Michael Coates, who studies tetrapod evolution at the University of Chicago.
Those boots weren’t made for walking…
The model showed that Ichthyostega’s shoulders and hips were oddly restricted. They could move back and forth, and up and down, but they couldn’t rotate about their long axis. Hold your arm out and rotate your palm so it faces up then down—Ichthyostega’s shoulder couldn’t do that.
Most modern tetrapods need long-axis rotation in order to walk. Without it, their legs can’t be thrown forward or pulled backward. Ichthyostega’s limitations meant that despite having four limbs, it probably couldn’t have taken a step. It hind feet would never have been planted flat against the ground or supported its weight. It had invaded the land, but it wasn’t striding across it.
“It highlights the fact that the earliest tetrapods are not just ‘gigantic salamanders’, despite a vague similarity in outline,” says Per Ahlberg from Uppsala University. “The limbs and girdles are very different from anything now living.”
Pierce thinks that Ichthyostega moved by paddle with its front limbs, using powerful muscles and flexible elbows to make rowing motions. The closest living analogue is probably the mudskipper – a fish that drags itself along muddy land with its front fins (as in the video below).
Pierce also compared Ichthyostega’s joints and limbs to those of other living animals with sinuous bodies and interesting gaits, including a salamander, crocodile, seal, otter and platypus. Compared to these modern species, Ichthyostega’s hips and shoulders were similarly flexible in most planes of movements, but along their long axis, they could barely rotate.
Some scientists think that the tetrapods evolved limbs before they could walk, and their first members lived in shallow water. Others think that it’s the other way round, and that muscular limbs, hips and shoulders evolved while fish still had fins. The virtual Ichthyostega supports the former idea, since it had limbs but couldn’t walk. But Coates cautions against “fitting a smooth transition from swimmers to walkers.” He says, “Evolutionary transitions needn’t follow linear routes. Ichthyostega probably represents one of multiple experiments among the first tetrapods with limbs, trying-out life in the shallows.”
So… what made those tracks?
Other early tetrapods had similar shoulders and hips, so they probably had the same limitations too. John Hutchinson, who led the new study, plans to find out. His lab is busy reconstructing other early tetrapods including Acanthostega, one of Ichthyostega’s contemporaries, and Pederpes, a later model.
But Ahlberg notes that Ichthyostega had a very unusual and rigid spine, and may not have been representative of other early tetrapods. “Other tetrapods are known to have had more flexible spines” he says, “and this probably allowed them to overcome the limitations of their shoulders and hips”.
This might explain why Ahlberg and others have discovered tracks that pre-date Ichthyostega by around 20 million years, and had become fairly common by the time it evolved. Many of these tracks showed precisely the kind of salamander-like movements that Ichthyostega was apparently incapable of making. They were clearly made by early four-legged tetrapods, and to this date, we don’t know what made them.
Pierce agrees that the final word on Ichthyostega’s movements will have to wait until she can animate its entire skeleton. “The ultimate goal would be to try and create some sort of dynamic movement,” she says. She has applied for a grant to do just that, to model the motions of the entire animal, and compare them to salamanders or crocodiles. “That’s going to take so much time, but it’ll be very interesting,” she says.
PS: I want to point out that in researching this story, I spent a good minute on my living room floor trying to walk without long-axis rotation. It was really hard, and I looked like an idiot. I did a similar thing when I was writing about hummingbird wing movements for Nature. I’m going to christen this Method Science Journalism.
Reference: Pierce, Clack & Hutchinson. 2012. Three-dimensional limb joint mobility in the early tetrapod Ichthyostega. Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature11124
Image by Julie Molnar
More on tetrapods:
In December of 2011, Fred Kraus from the Bishop Museum in Hawaii announced that he had discovered the world’s smallest frogs. The two coin-sized species were just 8.1 to 9.3 millimetres long. But these miniscule amphibians now share a different record – they were the world’s smallest frogs for the shortest amount of time.
Less than a month after Kraus’s announcement, Eric Rittmeyer and Christopher Austin from Louisiana University have found an even smaller frog, just 7 to 8 millimetres long. It’s dwarfed by a dime. It’s not just the world’s smallest frog, but the world’s smallest back-boned animal.
The new species, Paedophryne amauensis, is a close relative of the tiny pair from December – Paedophryne dekot and Paedophryne verrucosa). Extremely tiny frogs have evolved at least 11 times, but the Paedophryne group is unique in that all of its members are miniscule. They were first discovered in 2002, and six species have been discovered so far. All of them live in Papua New Guinea. Clearly, this corner of the world is a haven for the tinier side of life.
Gouge out my eyes, and I would be permanently blind. Cut off my limbs, and I would flop on the ground (although, I’d try to bite your legs off). But a newt would have no such problems. These small creatures are masters of regeneration. If they lose a limb, they grow new ones in a few months. They can regenerate parts of their tails, jaws, ears, hearts, spines, eyes and brains.
Now, Goro Eguchi has shown that a newt’s healing powers don’t diminish with age. As long as they live, they retain the ability to efficiently regrow their body parts (or at least, the lenses of their eyes), even if they have to do so over and over again.
In 1888, a biologist called Henry Orr was collecting spotted salamander eggs from a small, swampy pool when he noticed that some of them were green. He wrote, “The internal membrane of each egg was coloured a uniform light green by the presence in the membrane of a large number of minute globular green Algae.” Orr decided that the eggs “present a remarkable case of symbiosis.” The salamanders and the algae co-existed in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Orr was right that the two species have formed a partnership, but he was wrong in one crucial regard. He thought that the algae (Oophila amblystomatis) simply hung around next to the salamander embryos in the same egg. They don’t. More than 120 years later, Ryan Kerney from Dalhousie University has found that the algae actually invade the cells of the growing embryo, becoming part of its body.
With algae inside them, the salamanders become solar-powered animals, capable of directly harnessing the energy of the sun in the style of plants.
In June 1935, the cane toad began its invasion of Australia. Sailors brought the animal over from Hawaii in an attempt to control the cane beetle that was ravaging Australia’s sugar cane crops. It was a mistake that the continent’s wildlife would pay for. The toad did nothing to stop the beetles. Instead, it launched its own invasion, spreading across the continent from its north-eastern point of entry. As it marched, it left plummeting populations of native species in its wake.
The toads are born conquerors. Females can lay 35,000 eggs many times a year, and each can develop into a new frog in less than 10 weeks. They’re unfussy eaters and they’ll munch away on bird eggs, smaller native frogs and more. And they have large glands behind their heads, which secrete a milky poison. Local predators (or domestic pets) that try to eat them tend to die.
Now, Daniel Florance from the University of Sydney has found a clever way of corralling the cane toad invasion. He realised that humans have continued to give the toad a hand, long after we first brought them to Australia. By creating dams and troughs, we provided the toad with watery staging grounds that allowed it to spread across otherwise impassably dry land.
Christopher Tracy found the three radio transmitters lying on the forest floor. They were still intact and sending off a strong signal, but there was a big problem – all three of them were meant to be inside the body of a frog.
Several weeks before, Tracy had implanted transmitters into three species of Australian frogs to track their whereabouts. He had placed the devices into the frogs’ peritoneal cavity, a space within its belly that contains its stomach, guts and liver. But these ones were alone, with no bodies nearby or any signs of predators. The frogs hadn’t died or been eaten, but they had somehow removed the transmitters from an enclosed space within their bodies.
When Tracy located his other tagged frogs, he found an important clue: around three-quarters of the transmitters had moved to the animals’ bladders. Tracy was intrigued. He rounded up five more Australian tree frogs and five cane toads, implanted small beads into their bodies, and tracked them solidly for two to three weeks. After that time, he found that four of the toads had the beads in their bladders, and the other animals had urinated theirs out.
Miguel Vences was dissecting a frog no bigger than his fingernail when he smelled an unusual acrid smell. “Maybe it can be compared with vinegar,” he says. “It is a totally different smell, but somehow the same kind of bitter-burning feeling when you get it into your nose.” He remembered the distinctive scent from his experiences with other species of frogs, all of which have powerful poisons in their skins. He reasoned that the species he was cutting open – a beautiful Monte Iberia eleuth – was similarly armed with toxins. A chemical analysis of its skin confirmed Rodriguez’s suspicion. The frog’s skin was laced with toxins, including a group of muscle-paralysing poisons called pumiliotoxins that are common among poison dart frogs.
Not Exactly Pocket Science is a set of shorter write-ups of new stories with links to more detailed takes by the world’s best journalists and bloggers. It is meant to complement the usual fare of detailed pieces that are typical for this blog.
Frogs evolved to jump before they perfected landings
Most frogs are can leap large distances in a single bound, jumping forward with a thrust of their powerful hind legs and landing gracefully on their front ones. But it wasn’t always like this. A study of one of the most primitive groups of frogs suggests that the first frogs landed in an awkward belly-flop. These animals evolved to jump before they perfected their landings.
Virtually all frogs jump and land in the same way. But Richard Essner Jr from Southern Illinous University discovered a unique leaping style in the Rocky Mountain tailed frog. This species belongs to a group called the leiopelmatids, more commonly (and accurately) known as the “primitive frogs”. Using high-speed video footage, Essner showed that the tailed frog’s landings are an awkward mix of belly-flops, face-plants and lengthy skids. Only when it grinds to a halt does it gather its outstretched limbs together. By contrast, two more advanced species – the fire-bellied toad and the northern leopard frog – rotate their limbs forward in mid-air to land gracefully. The tailed frog managed to jump a similar distance, but its recovery time was longer.
These results support the idea that frogs eventually evolved their prodigious jumping abilities to escape from danger by rapidly diving into water. Landings hardly matter when you’re submerged and the ability to pull them off elegantly only evolved later. Essner thinks that doing so was fairly simple – if the tailed frog starts pulling its legs in just slightly earlier, it would land with far more poise. This simple innovation was probably a critical one in frog evolution. The primitive frogs never got there, but they have other ways of coping with their clumsy crash-landings. They’ve stayed very small to limit the injuries they sustain, and they have large shield-shaped piece of cartilage on their undersides to protect their soft vital organs.
Reference: Naturwissenschaften http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00114-010-0697-4; Video by Essner; soundtrack by me.
Changing climate fattens marmots
The media is rife with tales of animals from polar bears to corals suffering as a result of climate change. But some species stand to gain from the rising global temperatures. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, warmer climes allow the yellow-bellied marmot to awaken from its winter hibernation earlier. With more time available to eat, they become bigger and so do their populations. In just three decades, their numbers have tripled.
Arpat Ozgul from Imperial College London studied a 33-year census of Colorado’s marmots, where individuals have been tracked over their entire lifetimes. These rodents spend the winter hibernating in their burrows. But since 1976, they have been waking up earlier and earlier in the year, presumably because of a rise in warm days. That gives them more time to eat and grow before their next hibernation, and the adults have become around 10% heavier. Ozgul found that being fatter offers many advantages for a marmot – females are more likely to breed, youngsters grow more quickly, and adults are more likely to survive their next bout of hibernation.
It’s no surprise that their population has shot up dramatically, although surprisingly, this wasn’t a gradual process. Their numbers seemed to be fairly stable but they passed a tipping point in 2000 and have skyrocketed ever since. By modelling the changes in their bodies over time, Ozgul concluded that the marmots haven’t changed much genetically – their extra pounds are the result of their response to environmental changes. For example, the bluebells that they like to eat declined after 2000, which might have prompted them to seek other fattier foods.
But Ozgul worries that this boom period has a bust on the horizon – it’s a short-term response to warmer climate. These are animals that are adapted to chilly mountainous temperatures and they don’t fare well in heat. If temperatures continue to rise and summers get longer and drier, their health might suffer and their populations might crash.
Reference: Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature09210; image by Ben Hulsey