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White's Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea)
Distribution of frogs (in black)
The frog is an amphibian in the order Anura (meaning "tail-less" from Greek an-, without + oura, tail), formerly referred to as Salientia (Latin saltare, to jump). Adult frogs are characterised by long hind legs, a short body, webbed digits, protruding eyes and the absence of a tail. Most frogs have a semi-aquatic lifestyle, but move easily on land by jumping or climbing. They typically lay their eggs in puddles, ponds or lakes; and their larvae, called tadpoles, have gills and develop in water. Adult frogs follow a carnivorous diet, mostly of arthropods, annelids and gastropods. Frogs are most noticeable by their call, which can be widely heard during the night or day, mainly in their mating season.
The distribution of frogs ranges from tropic to subarctic regions, but most species are found in tropical rainforests. Consisting of more than 5,000 species described, they are among the most diverse groups of vertebrates. However, populations of certain frog species are significantly declining.
A distinction is often made between frogs and toads on the basis of their appearance, caused by the convergent adaptation among so-called toads to dry environments; however, this distinction has no taxonomic basis. The only family exclusively given the common name "toad" is Bufonidae, but many species from other families are also called "toads," and the species within the toad genus Atelopus are referred to as "harlequin frogs."
The name frog derives from Old English frocga, which in turn comes from Old Norse frauki, and eventually the Old Indian plava (frog), probably deriving from Proto-Indo-European praw (to jump). The scientific study of frogs is called herpetology (Greek ἑρπετόν herpeton = to creep, to ramp and λόγος logos = in this context, explanation or reason), a field in zoology that includes the study of both reptiles and amphibians.
- For more details on this topic, see List of Anuran families.
The order Anura contains 5,250 species in 33 families, of which the Leptodactylidae (1100 spp.), Hylidae (800 spp.) and Ranidae (750 spp.) are the richest in species. About 88% of amphibian species are frogs.
The use of the common names "frog" and "toad" has no taxonomic justification. From a taxonomic perspective, all members of the order Anura are frogs, but only members of the family Bufonidae are considered "true toads". The use of the term "frog" in common names usually refers to species that are aquatic or semi-aquatic with smooth or moist skins, and the term "toad" generally refers to species that tend to be terrestrial with dry, warty skin. An exception is the Fire-bellied toad (Bombina bombina): while its skin is slightly warty, it prefers a watery habitat.
Frogs and toads are broadly classified into three suborders: Archaeobatrachia, which includes four families of primitive frogs; Mesobatrachia, which includes five families of more evolutionary intermediate frogs; and Neobatrachia, by far the largest group, which contains the remaining 24 families of "modern" frogs, including most common species throughout the world. The Neobatrachia is further divided into the Hyloidea and Ranoidea. This classification is based on such morphological features as the number of vertebrae, the structure of the pectoral girdle, and the morphology of tadpoles. While this classification is largely accepted, relationships among families of frogs are still debated. Future studies of molecular genetics should soon provide further insights to the evolutionary relationships among frog families.
Some species of anurans hybridise readily. For instance, the Edible Frog (Rana esculenta) is a hybrid of the Pool Frog (R. lessonae) and the Marsh Frog (R. ridibunda). Bombina bombina and Bombina variegata similarly form hybrids, although these are less fertile, giving rise to a hybrid zone.
Morphology and physiology
- For more details on this topic, see Frog zoology.
The morphology (structure) of frogs is unique among amphibians. Compared with the other two groups of amphibians, (salamanders and caecilians), frogs are unusual because they lack tails as adults and their legs are more suited to jumping than walking. The physiology of frogs is generally like that of other amphibians (and differs from other terrestrial vertebrates) because oxygen can pass through their highly permeable skin. This unique feature allows frogs to "breathe" largely through their skin. Because the oxygen is dissolved in an aqueous film on the skin and passes from there to the blood, the skin must remain moist at all times; this makes frogs susceptible to many toxins in the environment, some of which can similarly dissolve in the layer of water and be passed into their bloodstream. This may be cause of the decline in frog populations.
Many characteristics are not shared by all of the approximately 5,250 described frog species. However, some general characteristics distinguish them from other amphibians. Frogs are usually well suited to jumping, with long hind legs and elongated ankle bones. They have a short vertebral column, with no more than ten free vertebrae, followed by a fused tailbone (urostyle or coccyx), typically resulting in a tailless phenotype.
Frogs range in size from 10 mm (Brachycepahlus didactylus of Brazil and Eleutherodactylus iberia of Cuba) to 300 mm (Goliath frog, Conraua goliath, of Cameroon). The skin hangs loosely on the body because of the lack of loose connective tissue. Skin texture varies: it can be smooth, warty or folded. Frogs have three eyelid membranes: one is transparent to protect the eyes underwater, and two vary from translucent to opaque. Frogs have a tympanum on each side of the head, which is involved in hearing and, in some species, is covered by skin.
Feet and legs
The structure of the feet and legs varies greatly among frog species, depending in part on whether they live primarily on the ground, in water, in trees, or in burrows. Frogs must be able to move quickly through their environment to catch prey and escape predators, and numerous adaptations help them do so.
Many frogs, especially those that live in water, have webbed toes. The degree to which the toes are webbed is directly proportional to the amount of time the species lives in the water. For example, the completely aquatic African dwarf frog (Hymenochirus sp.) has fully webbed toes, whereas the toes of White's Tree Frog, an arboreal species, are only a half or a quarter webbed.
Arboreal frogs have "toe pads" to help grip vertical surfaces. These pads, located on the ends of the toes, do not work by suction. Rather, the surface of the pad consists of interlocking cells, with a small gap between adjacent cells. When the frog applies pressure to the toe pads, the interlocking cells grip irregularities on the substrate. The small gaps between the cells drain away all but a thin layer of moisture on the pad, and maintain a grip through capillarity. This allows the frog to grip smooth surfaces, and does not function when the pads are excessively wet.
In many arboreal frogs, a small "intercalary structure" in each toe increases the surface area touching the substrate. Furthermore, since hopping through trees can be dangerous, many arboreal frogs have hip joints that allow both hopping and walking. Some frogs that live high in trees even possess an elaborate degree of webbing between their toes, as do aquatic frogs. But in these arboreal frogs, the webs allow the frogs to "parachute" or control their glide from one position in the canopy to another.
Ground-dwelling frogs generally lack the adaptations of aquatic and arboreal frogs. Most have smaller toe pads, if any, and little webbing. Some burrowing frogs have a toe extension—a metatarsal tubercle—that helps them to burrow. The hind legs of ground dwellers are more muscular than those of aqueous and tree-dwelling frogs.
Many frogs are able to absorb water directly through the skin, especially around the pelvic area. However, the permeability of a frog's skin can also result in water loss. Some tree frogs reduce water loss with a waterproof layer of skin. Others have adapted behaviours that conserve water, including engaging in nocturnal activity and resting in a water-conserving position. This position involves the frog lying with its toes and fingers tucked under its body and chin, respectively, with no gap between the body and substrate. Some frog species will also rest in large groups, touching the skin of the neighbouring frog. This reduces the amount of skin exposed to the air or a dry surface, and thus reduces water loss. These adaptations only reduce water loss enough for a predominantly arboreal existence, and are not suitable for arid conditions.
Camouflage is a common defensive mechanism in frogs. Most camouflaged frogs are nocturnal, which adds to their ability to hide. Nocturnal frogs usually find the ideal camouflaged position during the day to sleep. Some frogs have the ability to change colour, but this is usually restricted to shades of one or two colours. For example, White's tree frog (Litoria caerulea) varies in shades of green and brown. Features such as warts and skin folds are usually found on ground-dwelling frogs, where a smooth skin would not disguise them effectively. Arboreal frogs usually have smooth skin, enabling them to disguise themselves as leaves.
Certain frogs change colour between night and day, as light and moisture stimulate the pigment cells and cause them to expand or contract.
Many frogs contain mild toxins that make them distasteful to potential predators. For example, all toads have large poison glands—the parotid glands—located behind the eyes on the top of the head. Some frogs, such as some poison dart frogs, are especially toxic. The chemical makeup of toxins in frogs varies from irritants to hallucinogens, convulsants, nerve poisons, and vasoconstrictors (which narrow the blood vessels). Many predators of frogs have adapted to tolerate high levels of these poisons. Others, including humans, may be severely affected.
Some frogs obtain poisons from the ants and other arthropods they eat; others, such as the Australian Corroboree Frogs (Pseudophryne corroboree and Pseudophryne pengilleyi), can manufacture an alkaloid not derived from their diet. Some native people of South America extract poison from the poison dart frogs and apply it to their darts for hunting, although few species are toxic enough to be used for this purpose. It was previously a misconception that the poison was placed on arrows rather than darts. The common name of these frogs was thus changed from "Poison Arrow Frog" to "Poison Dart Frog" in the early 1980s. Poisonous frogs tend to advertise their toxicity with bright colours, an adaptive strategy known as aposematism. There are at least two non-poisonous species of frogs in tropical America (Eleutherodactylus gaigei and Lithodytes lineatus) that mimic the colouration of dart poison frogs' coloration for self-protection (Batesian mimicry).
Because frog toxins are extraordinarily diverse, they have raised the interest of biochemists as a "natural pharmacy". The alkaloid epibatidine, a painkiller 200 times more potent than morphine, is found in some species of poison dart frogs. Other chemicals isolated from the skin of frogs may offer resistance to HIV infection. Arrow and dart poisons are under active investigation for their potential as therapeutic drugs.
The skin secretions of some toads, such as the Colorado River Toad and Cane Toad, contain bufotoxins, some of which, such as bufotenin, are psychoactive, and have therefore been used as recreational drugs. Typically, the skin secretions are dried and smoked. Skin licking is especially dangerous, and appears to constitute an urban myth. See psychoactive toad.
Respiration and circulation
The skin of a frog is permeable to oxygen and carbon dioxide, as well as to water. There are a number of blood vessels near the surface of the skin. When a frog is underwater, oxygen is transmitted through the skin directly into the bloodstream. On land, adult frogs use their lungs to breathe. Their lungs are similar to those of humans, but the chest muscles are not involved in respiration, and there are no ribs or diaphragm to support breathing. Frogs breathe by taking air in through the nostrils (causing the throat to puff out), and compressing the floor of the mouth, which forces the air into the lungs.
Frogs are known for their three-chambered heart, which they share with all tetrapods except birds and mammals. In the three-chambered heart, oxygenated blood from the lungs and de-oxygenated blood from the respiring tissues enter by separate atria, and are directed via a spiral valve to the appropriate vessel—aorta for oxygenated blood and pulmonary vein for deoxygenated blood. This special structure is essential to keeping the mixing of the two types of blood to a minimum, which enables frogs to have higher metabolic rates, and to be more active than otherwise.
The life cycle of frogs, like that of other amphibians, consists of four main stages: egg, tadpole, metamorphosis and adult. The reliance of frogs on an aquatic environment for the egg and tadpole stages gives rise to a variety of breeding behaviours that include the well-known mating calls used by the males of most species to attract females to the bodies of water that they have chosen for breeding. Some frogs also look after their eggs—and in some cases even the tadpoles—for some time after laying.
The life cycle of a frog starts with an egg. A female generally lays frogspawn, or egg masses containing thousands of eggs, in water. The eggs are highly vulnerable to predation, so frogs have evolved many techniques to ensure the survival of the next generation. Most commonly, this involves synchronous reproduction. Many individuals will breed at the same time, overwhelming the actions of predators; the majority of the offspring will still die due to predation, but there is a greater chance that some will survive. Another way in which some species avoid the predators and pathogens eggs are exposed to in ponds is to lay eggs on leaves above the pond, with a gelatinous coating designed to retain moisture. In these species the tadpoles drop into the water upon hatching. The eggs of some species laid out of water can detect vibrations of nearby predatory wasps or snakes, and will hatch early to avoid being eaten. Some species, such as the Cane Toad (Bufo marinus), lay poisonous eggs to minimise predation. While the length of the egg stage depends on the species and environmental conditions, aquatic eggs generally hatch within one week.
Eggs hatch and continue life as tadpoles (occasionally known as polliwogs). Tadpoles are aquatic, lack front and hind legs, and have gills for respiration and tails with fins for swimming. Tadpoles are typically herbivorous, feeding mostly on algae, including diatoms that are filtered from the water through the gills. Some species are carnivorous at the tadpole stage, eating insects, smaller tadpoles and fish. Tadpoles are highly vulnerable to predation by fish, newts, predatory diving beetles and birds such as kingfishers. Cannibalism has been observed among tadpoles. Poisonous tadpoles are present in many species, such as Cane Toads. The tadpole stage may be as short as a week, or tadpoles may overwinter and metamorphose the following year in some species, such as the Midwife toad (Alytes obstetricans) and the Common Spadefoot (Pelobates fuscus).
At the end of the tadpole stage, frogs undergo metamorphosis, in which they transition into adult form. Metamorphosis involves a dramatic transformation of morphology and physiology, as tadpoles develop hind legs, then front legs, lose their gills and develop lungs. Their intestines shorten as they shift from an herbivorous to a carnivorous diet. Eyes migrate rostrally and dorsally, allowing for binocular vision exhibited by the adult frog. This shift in eye position mirrors the shift from prey to predator, as the tadpole develops and depends less upon a larger and wider field of vision and more upon depth perception. The final stage of development from froglet to adult frog involves apoptosis (programmed cell death) and resorption of the tail.
After metamorphosis, young adults may leave the water and disperse into terrestrial habitats, or continue to live in the aquatic habitat as adults. Almost all species of frogs are carnivorous as adults, eating invertebrates such as arthropods, annelids and gastropods. A few of the larger species may eat prey such as small mammals, fish and smaller frogs. Some frogs use their sticky tongues to catch fast-moving prey, while others capture their prey and force it into their mouths with their hands. However, there are a very few species of frogs that primarily eat plants. Adult frogs are themselves preyed upon by birds, large fish, snakes, otters, foxes, badgers, coatis, and other animals. Frogs are also eaten by people (see section on agriculture, below).
Once adult frogs reach maturity, they will assemble at a water source such as a pond or stream to breed. Many frogs return to the bodies of water where they were born, often resulting in annual migrations involving thousands of frogs. In continental Europe, a large proportion of migrating frogs used to die on roads, before special fences and tunnels were built for them.
Once at the breeding ground, male frogs call to attract a mate, collectively becoming a chorus of frogs. The call is unique to the species, and will attract females of that species. Some species have satellite males who do not call, but intercept females that are approaching a calling male.
The male and female frogs then undergo amplexus. This involves the male mounting the female and gripping her tightly. Fertilization is external: the egg and sperm meet outside of the body. The female releases her eggs, which the male frog covers with a sperm solution. The eggs then swell and develop a protective coating. The eggs are typically brown or black, with a clear, gelatin-like covering.
Most temperate species of frogs reproduce between late autumn and early spring. In the UK, most common frog populations produce frogspawn in February, although there is wide variation in timing. Water temperatures at this time of year are relatively low, typically between four and 10 degrees Celsius. Reproducing in these conditions helps the developing tadpoles because dissolved oxygen concentrations in the water are highest at cold temperatures. More importantly, reproducing early in the season ensures that appropriate food is available to the developing frogs at the right time.
Although care of offspring is poorly understood in frogs, it is estimated that up to 20% of amphibian species may care for their young in one way or another, and there is a great diversity of parental behaviours. Some species of poison dart frog lay eggs on the forest floor and protect them, guarding the eggs from predation and keeping them moist. The frog will urinate on them if they become too dry. After hatching, a parent (the sex depends upon the species) will move them, on its back, to a water-holding bromeliad. The parent then feeds them by laying unfertilized eggs in the bromeliad until the young have metamorphosed. Other frogs carry the eggs and tadpoles on their hind legs or back (e.g. the midwife toads, Alytes spp.). Some frogs even protect their offspring inside their own bodies. The male Australian Pouched Frog (Assa darlingtoni) has pouches along its side in which the tadpoles reside until metamorphosis. The female Gastric-brooding Frogs (genus Rheobatrachus) from Australia, now probably extinct, swallows its tadpoles, which then develop in the stomach. To do this, the Gastric-brooding Frog must stop secreting stomach acid and suppress peristalsis (contractions of the stomach). Darwin's Frog (Rhinoderma darwinii) from Chile puts the tadpoles in its vocal sac for development.
The call of a frog is unique to its species. Frogs call by passing air through the larynx in the throat. In most calling frogs, the sound is amplified by one or more vocal sacs, membranes of skin under the throat or on the corner of the mouth that distend during the amplification of the call. Some frog calls are so loud, they can be heard up to a mile away.
Some frogs lack vocal sacs, such as those from the genera Heleioporus and Neobatrachus, but these species can still produce a loud call. Their buccal cavity is enlarged and dome-shaped, acting as a resonance chamber that amplifies their call. Species of frog without vocal sacs and that do not have a loud call tend to inhabit areas close to flowing water. The noise of flowing water overpowers any call, so they must communicate by other means.
The main reason for calling is to allow males to attract a mate. Males call either individually or in a group called a chorus. Females of many frog species, for example Polypedates leucomystax, produce calls reciprocal to the males', which act as the catalyst for the enhancement of reproductive activity in a breeding colony. A male frog emits a release call when mounted by another male. Tropical species also have a rain call that they make on the basis of humidity cues prior to a rain shower. Many species also have a territorial call that is used to chase away other males. All of these calls are emitted with the mouth of the frog closed.
A distress call, emitted by some frogs when they are in danger, is produced with the mouth open, resulting in a higher-pitched call. The effectiveness of the call is unknown; however, it is suspected that the call intrigues the predator until another animal is attracted, distracting them enough for its escape.
Many species of frog have deep calls, or croaks. The onomatopoeic spelling is often "crrrrk" in Britain and "ribbit" in the US. This difference is due to the different species within each region (e.g., Common frog (Rana temporaria) in Britain and Leopard frog (Rana pipiens) in the US). The croak of the American bullfrog (Rana catesbiana) is sometimes spelt "jug o' rum".
Distribution and conservation status
The habitat of frogs extends almost worldwide, but they do not occur in Antarctica and are not present in many oceanic islands. The greatest diversity of frogs occurs in the tropical areas of the world, where water is readily available, suiting frogs' requirements due to their skin. Some frogs inhabit arid areas such as deserts, where water may not be easily accessible, and rely on specific adaptations to survive. The Australian genus Cyclorana and the American genus Pternohyla will bury themselves underground, create a water-impervious cocoon and hibernate during dry periods. Once it rains, they emerge, find a temporary pond and breed. Egg and tadpole development is very fast in comparison to most other frogs so that breeding is complete before the pond dries up. Some frog species are adapted to a cold environment; for instance the Wood Frog, which lives in the Arctic Circle, buries itself in the ground during winter when much of its body freezes.
Frog populations have declined dramatically since the 1950s: more than one third of species are believed to be threatened with extinction and more than 120 species are suspected to be extinct since the 1980s. Among these species are the Golden toad of Costa Rica and the Gastric-brooding Frogs of Australia. Habitat loss is a significant cause of frog population decline, as are pollutants, climate change, the introduction of non-indigenous predators/competitors, and emerging infectious diseases including chytridiomycosis. Many environmental scientists believe that amphibians, including frogs, are excellent biological indicators of broader ecosystem health because of their intermediate position in food webs, permeable skins, and typically biphasic life (aquatic larvae and terrestrial adults).
A Canadian study conducted in 2006 proposed that heavy traffic near frog habitats is a large threat to frog populations.
The earliest known (proto) frog is Triadobatrachus massinoti, from the 250 million year old early Triassic of Madagascar. The skull is frog-like, being broad with large eye sockets, but the fossil has features diverging from modern amphibia. These include a different ilium, a longer body with more vertebrae, and separate vertebrae in its tail (whereas in modern frogs, the tail vertebrae are fused, and known as the urostyle or coccyx). The tibia and fibula bones are unfused and separate, making it probable that Triadobatrachus was not an efficient leaper.
Another fossil frog, discovered in Arizona and called Prosalirus bitis, was uncovered in 1985, and dates from roughly the same time as Triadobatrachus. Like Triadobatrachus, Prosalirus did not have greatly enlarged legs, but had the typical three-pronged pelvic structure. Unlike Triadobatrachus, Prosalirus had already lost nearly all of its tail.
The earliest true frog is Vieraella herbsti, from the early Jurassic (188–213 Mya). It is known only from the dorsal and ventral impressions of a single animal and was estimated to be 33 mm in snout-vent length. Notobatrachus degiustoi from the middle Jurassic is slightly younger, about 155–170 million years old. It is likely that the evolution of modern Anura was completed by the Jurassic period. The main evolutionary changes involved the shortening of the body and the loss of the tail.
The earliest full fossil record of a modern frog is that of sanyanlichan, which lived 125 million years ago and had all modern frog features, but bore 9 presacral vertebrae instead of the 8 of modern frogs, apparently still being a transitional species.
Frog fossils have been found on all continents, including Antarctica.
Uses in agriculture and research
- For more details on this topic, see Frogs in research.
Frogs are raised commercially for several purposes. Frogs are used as a food source; frog legs are a delicacy in China, France,the north of Greece and in many parts of the American South, especially Louisiana. Dead frogs are sometimes used for dissections in high school and university anatomy classes, often after being injected with coloured plastics to enhance the contrast between the organs. This practice has declined in recent years with the increasing concerns about animal welfare.
Frogs have served as important model organisms throughout the history of science. Eighteenth-century biologist Luigi Galvani discovered the link between electricity and the nervous system through studying frogs. The African clawed frog or platanna, Xenopus laevis, was first widely used in laboratories in pregnancy assays in the first half of the 20th century. When human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone found in substantial quantities in the urine of pregnant women, is injected into a female X. laevis, it induces them to lay eggs. In 1952 Robert Briggs and Thomas J. King cloned a frog by somatic cell nuclear transfer, the same technique that was later used to create Dolly the Sheep, their experiment was the first time successful nuclear transplantation had been accomplished in metazoans.
Frogs are used in cloning research and other branches of embryology because frogs are among the closest living relatives of man to lack egg shells characteristic of most other vertebrates, and therefore facilitate observations of early development. Although alternative pregnancy assays have been developed, biologists continue to use Xenopus as a model organism in developmental biology because it is easy to raise in captivity and has a large and easily manipulatable embryo. Recently, X. laevis is increasingly being displaced by its smaller relative X. tropicalis, which reaches its reproductive age in five months rather than one to two years (as in X. laevis), facilitating faster studies across generations. The genome sequence of X. tropicalis will probably be completed by 2015 at the latest.
Frogs in popular culture
- For more details on this topic, see Frogs in popular culture.
Frogs feature prominently in folklore, fairy tales and popular culture. They tend to be portrayed as benign, ugly, clumsy, but with hidden talents. Examples include Michigan J. Frog, The Frog Prince, and Kermit the Frog. Michigan J. Frog, featured in a Warner Brothers cartoon, only performs his singing and dancing routine for his owner. Once another person looks at him, he will return to a frog-like pose. "The Frog Prince" is a fairy tale of a frog who turns into a handsome prince once kissed. Kermit the Frog, on the other hand, is a conscientious and disciplined character of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show; while openly friendly and greatly talented, he is often portrayed as cringing at the fanciful behaviour of more flamboyant characters.
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- The Whole Frog Project - Virtual frog dissection and anatomy
- Disappearance of toads, frogs has some scientists worried - San Francisco Chronicle, April 20, 1992
- Xenbase - A Xenopus laevis and tropicalis Web Resource
- Tree of Life (Salientia)
- Amphibia Web
- Time-lapse video showing the egg's development until hatching
- Frog calls - short video clips of calling frogs and interviews with scientists about frog issues, including declining and malformed frog causes
- Frog calls - Canada
- eastern United States Frog calls - eastern United States
- Record UK Frogspawn sightings here - Springwatch 2006
- Frogwatch USA volunteer frog and toad monitoring program by National Wildlife Federation and USGS, includes links to frog calls of the United States
- Amphibian photo gallery by scientific name - features many unusual frogs
- Scientific American: Researchers Pinpoint Source of Poison Frogs' Deadly Defenses
- www.reptilia-amphibia.net - Reptiles & Amphibians of France