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Some frogs tap their tiny toes when they see prey

There’s something mesmerizing about watching a poison dart frog tap its tiny toes. It’s almost as if they’re dancing to an unheard rhythm, a secret symphony only they can appreciate. But what if this isn’t just a quirky display? What if those rhythmic taps serve a purpose far beyond mere entertainment?

Mysterious behavior of toe-tapping frogs

Scientists have long been intrigued by the toe-tapping behavior of amphibians. While this phenomenon is well-documented, its purpose has remained shrouded in mystery. Is it a playful gesture? A way to attract mates? Or perhaps a secret weapon in the hunt for prey?

A recent study sheds light on this fascinating behavior. Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign focused their attention on the Dyeing poison frog (Dendrobates tinctorius), a species known for its vibrant colors and, of course, its rhythmic toe taps.

Why do the frogs tap their toes?

“We already knew the answer to this, but it was great to see that the tapping increased in the presence of the prey,” said Professor Eva Fischer, the study’s lead author. But the real question was why?

The researchers hypothesized that the toe-tapping might play a role in feeding. To test this theory, they observed the frogs under various conditions, carefully documenting their tap rates.

Frog tapping captured by iPhone

Armed with nothing more than an iPhone’s slow-motion camera, former undergraduate student Thomas Parrish meticulously recorded the frogs’ tapping behavior.

“Afterwards, I went back to each video and counted the number of taps on each foot and how long they were visible since they were often hidden behind a leaf or the frog itself,” Parrish explained.

The data revealed a fascinating pattern: the frogs tapped their toes significantly more often when prey was present. But was this merely an excited response, like a dog wagging its tail, or was there something more strategic at play?

A symphony of vibrations

The researchers devised a clever experiment to find out. They placed fruit flies, a favorite snack of the Dyeing poison frog, in small, clear dishes within the frogs’ habitat. This allowed the frogs to see the prey but not access it directly.

“The idea was that if they’re excited, we might see something different based on whether they can catch the flies,” Fisher explained. However, the frogs continued to tap their toes with gusto, suggesting that the tapping was not merely a byproduct of excitement.

A tap dance on different stages

To further explore the purpose of the toe tapping, the researchers introduced another variable: the surface on which the frogs were standing. They observed the frogs’ behavior on soil, leaf litter, gel, and glass – surfaces with varying degrees of responsiveness to vibrations.

“Soil and leaves are natural substances, but soil is not very responsive while leaves are. On the other hand, gels are responsive and glass is not, but they are both unnatural surfaces to frogs,” Fischer noted.

The results were intriguing. The frogs’ tap rate varied depending on the surface, but surprisingly, this had no impact on their feeding success. “Although we saw that the frogs ate in every context, it was exciting to see that they changed their behavior based on what they’re standing on,” said Fischer.

More than just mealtime moves

While the study strongly suggests that toe tapping plays a role in feeding, the researchers believe it may have other functions as well. “For example, we have seen that the frogs tap more when there are other frogs nearby, so there may be a social aspect to it,” noted Fischer.

The researchers are eager to continue their investigations, exploring the biomechanical intricacies of the frogs’ toe-tapping muscles and investigating other potential triggers for this behavior.

So, the next time you see a poison dart frog tap dancing its way across a leaf, remember: there’s more to this performance than meets the eye. It’s a symphony of vibrations, a secret language, and a testament to the fascinating complexity of the natural world.

The study is published in the journal Ethology.


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