Aug 19, 2018 | Updated: 01:42 PM EDT

New Morphing Frog Reveals Its Spiny Ability

Mar 26, 2015 08:58 PM EDT

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In the wild, camouflage and mimicry are powerful abilities that often mean the difference between life and death. But while merely hiding in the background may mean going unnoticed, being able to change one's form can change odds of survival astronomically when it comes to predation. And though the ability to camouflage may be an uncommon attribute that most species can live without, one fingernail-sized frog in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador is revealing a far rarer ability-making it the first shape-shifting amphibian ever found.

Known simply as the "mutable rain frog", Pristimantis mutabilis was recently discovered in the Chocó Cloud Forest Reserve known as the "Reserva Las Gralarias" in the Andes Mountain. Home to rare birds and butterflies, the reserve is known as a biodiversity hotspot filled with many organism endemic to the region. But it wasn't until 2012 that the first of its species, the Las Gralarias glass frog was found in the reserve. 

Searching for the shape sifter for almost ten years, since they first unknowingly captured a photo of the rare species in 2006, researchers with Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University have spend tireless hours walking trails at night listening for the call of the frog. Katherine and Tim Krynak dedicated their lives to the task at hand when they enlarged a snapshot taken on an unrelated trip and found a "punk-rock looking" frog with spiny-textured skin.

"It wasn't until we saw the amazing texture of its skin that we though 'Wow, this is something different'!" Katherine Krynak says.

Publishing their discovery in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the Krynaks admit that their search for the right frog was difficult as they often thought that they had captured members of the wrong species, not noticing that the spiny texture of the frogs' backs could transition at will. The frog can transform its appearance from prickly to smooth in just under five minutes, and while the researchers still have to test their theories on live specimens captured in the wild, they think that they may have figured out exactly why the morphing ability may have evolved within the reserve. 

As the new frog species is small and that the cloud forests are covered in a dense moss, the Krynaks believe that the shape-shifting spines may prove effective in disappearing into the texture of the moss. But the why and how they are able to do their nifty hiding trick have yet to be answered. 

Regardless the researchers say that its discovery is an extremely unique and rare case that highlights major issues in the conservation and research of amphibians who are declining worldwide every day. And they hope that with their new research they may be able to bring light to an important global topic.

"Amphibians are declining so rapidly [in nature]" Katherine Krynak says. "Scientists are oftentimes describing new species from museum specimens because the animals have already gone extinct in the wild, very recently [at that]."

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