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In the Concrete Jungle, a Parade of Frog Princes

Blue poison frog



COURTESY OF AMNH
NEW YORK CITY--The American Museum of Natural History is best known as a house of the dead. Its public halls hold some of the world's finest displays of fossils and taxidermic specimens. The museum's research collections are similarly renowned--scholars across the globe study the bones and preserved corpses stored here. The creatures in the latest exhibit, however, are very much alive. Frogs: A Chorus of Colors, which opened on Saturday, features more than 200 frogs representing 24 species from such far-flung locales as Madagascar, Paraguay, Vietnam and Russia.

Visitors to Frogs, curated by herpetologist Christopher J. Raxworthy and his colleagues, are treated to a stunning diversity of color and form. In one display case a troop of turquoise waxy monkey frogs (Phyllomedusa sauvagii) sits serenely atop slender tree branches, grasping them with opposable thumbs. Next door, the Vietnamese mossy frogs (Theloderma corticale) are masters of disguise--their bumpy green-and-brown bodies barely perceptible against the ground cover for which they are named. Down the hall, the ornate horned frog (Ceratophrys ornate)--a green paisley hockey puck of an amphibian--relaxes in a puddle. Its festive markings belie a fearsome temperament: According to the accompanying description, tadpoles of this South American species eat one another, and when harassed by a human or other large animal, the frog will lunge and snap, hanging on to the offender until pried loose.

The crown jewel of the show is the poison dart frog vivarium, home to some 75 individuals belonging to nine species. "It's a five-star hotel for frogs," comments Taran Grant, a graduate student in the museum's department of herpetology and co-curator of the exhibition. Built around the trunk of a tropical buttress-rooted tree, the vivarium provides a warm, lush habitat full of nooks for hiding and a steady supply of fruit flies for eating. Its flashy occupants, all bred in captivity, seem content. Grant notes that the frogs recently started calling to one another, an indicator that they are comfortable in their new surroundings. (Unfortunately, the symphony of trills, whistles, croaks and chirps that fills the room is actually a recording.)

In the wild poison dart frogs, native to Central and South America, are as deadly as they are beautiful. Indeed, the venom from a single golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis) can kill 10 humans. The frogs get their poison from the food they eat--mostly ants, which in turn obtain the toxic compounds from plants. The animals on display here, however, have been raised on a diet that lacks these compounds and are thus harmless.

The charismatic frogs themselves are the stars of the show, but visitors who also take in the inanimate displays will come away the wiser for it. Informational panels tackle topics such as reproduction and conservation with elan. And interactive stations enable users to listen to individual species' calls, perform a virtual frog dissection and watch video clips of the animals jumping, swimming and even gliding.

Frogs will run through October 3; admission is $19 for adults, $11 for children and $14 for students and seniors (prices include suggested museum admission). Those unable to get to the exhibition in person can make a virtual visit: The museum's Web site (www.amnh.org) features, among other things, a webcam trained on the poison frogs.

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