60-Second Science

Belly-Flopping Frogs Leapt While Still Bad Landers

Frogs from an ancient lineage reveal that the amphibians developed the ability to jump before they had mastered landing. Cynthia Graber reports.

You’d think an animal that hops would know how to land. But for a kind of frog, that’s not the case. Imagine trying to catch a frog. You reach and they jump, only to land gracefully on their feet a few feet away.

It was thought that all frogs moved this way. They'd push off with their back legs, and then once in flight, rotate the limbs forward. Then they landed fore-limbs first. But researchers compared frogs of the family Leiopelmatidae, which still sport an ancient physiology, to two more modern frog species. Unlike their more graceful cousins, the primitive frogs kept their back legs straight out after they jumped. So they don’t land on their feet. Instead, they do an ungainly belly flop, and then struggle to get to their feet and jump again. The finding is in the journal Naturwissenschaften. [Richard Essner et al.,]

The scientists say that the back-leg push-off must have evolved first, with the ability to rotate and land softly evolving later. Although the bad landers are still around, their more controlled relatives appear to be better at making longer trips, foraging for food and, most importantly, avoiding other animals that have an interest in frog legs—for dinner.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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