High in the remote mountains of Vietnam, scientists have found a “striking” new species of pink-and-yellow frog covered with sharp spikes.
Jodi Rowley, an expert on Southeast Asian amphibians, had never seen a frog with such spiny skin, and neither had her colleagues.
That’s because thorny tree frogs (Gracixalus lumarius), as they’re named in a new study published April 2 in the journal Zootaxa, are found only on Mount Ngoc Linh and surrounding peaks above 5,900 feet (1,800 m).
“Almost every tree hole we looked in had these frogs. They seem to be only from the tops of mountains in this one area in Vietnam, and this region is known to be home to a bunch of species that are found nowhere else,” said Rowley, a biologist at the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney.
Although her and her colleagues didn’t spot that many tree holes, nearly every one they did find had a frog.
Rowley and colleagues regularly explore Vietnam’s mountains, home to the world’s most diverse group of amphibians. In 2013, the team revealed a new flying frog with flappy forearms, which lives not far from Ho Chi Minh City.
The high peaks of central Vietnam might not seem the most logical place to go hunting for amphibians — the terrain is steep and rocky, and has almost no standing water in which the frogs can live.
But Vietnam’s mountain frogs, Rowley and her team found, make do by hanging out in small tree hollows filled with water.
It was on one such tree that Rowley spotted the roughly two-inch-long (five-cm-long) thorny tree frog.
The animal’s most distinctive feature is a layer of spikes, which cover the backs and heads of male frogs.
“They feel just like sandpaper,” said Rowley, who has received funding from the National Geographic Committee on Research and Exploration.
The spikes are made of keratin, the same protein that makes up your fingernails and rhinoceros horns.
Although little is known about the frog’s ecology and natural history, Rowley believes that the spikes which get bigger during mating season help females identify males.
Frog’s uncertain future
But this impressive armour won’t help the frog endure the many threats to its future.
Southeast Asia has the highest deforestation rate on the planet, and because the frog’s habitat is limited to just a few mountains, it’s particularly vulnerable to habitat loss and climate change, which will likely alter mountaintop climates drastically, Rowley said on her blog.
“Now that we know the species exists,” she said, “we hope to ensure its continued survival.”