July 19, 2024

Humans Unable to Hear the Screams of These Frogs

Humans Unable to Hear the Screams of These Frogs

Amphibians, with their vibrant colors and unmistakable croaks, are renowned for their diverse array of adaptations. However, recent research sheds light on a lesser-known defense mechanism—one that operates in the realm of sound frequencies beyond human perception. A study published in the journal Acta Ethologica on April 4 delves into the intriguing world of amphibian distress calls, revealing how some species in South America employ ultrasound to deter predators.

Unheard Warnings: The World of Ultrasound

Ultrasound, characterized by frequencies beyond the range of human hearing, plays a pivotal role in the communication and navigation of various animals, including marine mammals, bats, and rodents. For amphibians facing threats from predators, the use of ultrasound may represent a potent tool for survival. “One of our hypotheses is that the distress call is addressed to some of these [predators], but it could also be the case that the broad frequency band is generalist in the sense that it’s supposed to scare as many predators as possible,” explains Ubiratã Ferreira Souza, a study co-author and ecologist at the State University of Campinas’s Institute of Biology (IB-UNICAMP) in São Paulo, Brazil.

The Amphibian Scream: A Defensive Symphony

In the heart of the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest, the leaf litter frog (Haddadus binotatus) employs a unique sonic strategy against potential threats. Bats, rodents, snakes, and small primates are among the predators targeted by this amphibian’s distress call. The study, conducted by a team of researchers, recorded the amphibian’s distress call on multiple occasions. The sound, ranging from 7 kHz to 44 kHz, encompasses both audible frequencies for humans (7 kHz to 20 kHz) and the ultrasonic spectrum (20 kHz to 44 kHz).

Dance of Defense: The Leaf Litter Frog’s Tactics

When emitting the distress call, the leaf litter frog assumes a series of defensive movements, reminiscent of a martial dance. The frog raises the front of its body, opens its mouth wide, and jerks its head backward in a display of defiance. Subsequently, it emits a sound that transitions from audible to humans to the ultrasound band—sounds unheard by human ears. “Because amphibian diversity in Brazil is the highest in the world, with more than 2,000 species described, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that other frogs also emit sounds at these frequencies,” suggests Mariana Retuci Pontes, a study co-author and IB-UNICAMP PhD student.

Accidental Discovery: The Hensel’s Big-Headed Frog’s Secret

In a fortuitous encounter, Mariana Retuci Pontes stumbled upon the potential use of this sonic defense by another amphibian species. While attempting to photograph a Hensel’s big-headed frog (Ischnocnema henselii) in the Upper Ribeira State Tourism Park in São Paulo, Pontes observed strikingly similar defensive behaviors and distress calls akin to the leaf litter frog. In a remarkable twist, Pontes noticed the presence of a landhead pit viper (Bothrops jararaca) nearby, further reinforcing the notion that these behaviors are responses to potential predators. Though she managed to record a video, the analysis of ultrasound bands in the distress call remained inconclusive.

A Window Into Amphibian Adaptations

The study not only illuminates the fascinating use of ultrasound by amphibians for defense but also highlights the potential universality of this strategy across species. “Both species live in leaf litter, are similar in size [between 1.8 and 2.3 inches], and have similar predators, so it’s possible that I. henselii also uses this distress call with ultrasound to defend itself against natural enemies,” adds Luís Felipe Toledo, a study co-author and IB-UNICAMP zoologist. Furthermore, researchers have documented ultrasound calls from three Asian amphibian species, hinting at the widespread use of these frequencies in inter-species communication. However, it remains unclear whether these calls are specifically deployed in response to predator presence.

Conclusion: Unraveling Nature’s Sonic Arsenal

As our understanding of the natural world deepens, we uncover remarkable adaptations that underscore the ingenuity of life forms. The use of ultrasound by amphibians, once hidden from human perception, now stands as a testament to their survival strategies. By delving into these intricate sonic defenses, researchers offer insights into the diverse and often surprising ways in which creatures navigate the challenges of their environments. Through continued exploration and observation, we peel back the layers of nature’s sonic arsenal, revealing a symphony of adaptations that have evolved over millennia. The leaf litter frog’s defiant call, echoing in the depths of the Brazilian rainforest, serves as a reminder of the unseen wonders that await discovery in the world of amphibian life.

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