Science and Research

Massive treefrog breeding aggregations at Shampoo Pond

Blog Post by Brandon André Güell, NSF Pre-doctoral Fellow and Ph.D. Student, Warkentin Lab, Boston University

Brandon Güell observing a breeding aggregation at Shampoo Pond. Photo: Brandon Güell

It was about 06:00 after night-long heavy rains ended a short dry spell, and already you could hear a deafening chorus of creatures gathering at the pond. Though sleepless and mosquito-ridden, we trudged chest-deep through the murky swamp waters with notebook and camera in hand to reach the source of the chaos. That’s when we saw it: One of the largest aggregations of treefrogs likely ever to be witnessed.

Tens of thousands of adult gliding treefrogs (Agalychnis spurrelli) literally poured over each other in attempt to breed and lay eggs. And for two Costa Rican tropical biologists and herpetologists, this rare biblical magnitude of frogs was like heaven on earth. This is Costa Rica. This is Osa. This is “Shampoo Pond”.

Agalychnis spurrelli breeding aggregation on palm leaf at Shampoo Pond. Photo: Brandon Güell

 

Since 2015, I have been studying how frog embryos use environmental cues to change their behavior. My current Ph.D. research in the Osa aims to understand how specific reproductive strategies interact with both environmental cues and development to affect embryo behavior and survival. For these gliding treefrogs, tens of thousands of reproducing adult frogs mean hundreds of thousands of frog eggs and embryos. And in this species, embryos are left alone to fend for themselves after they are laid. That means this event leaves behind a massive all you can eat frog-egg buffet for hungry predators

Why have a massive population lay their helpless eggs all at once in one location? That’s a great question, and it’s one I hope to answer!

In some cases, an overwhelming amount of prey can function as an antipredator adaptation if, for example, the overabundance of frog eggs decreases the probability of any one egg’s chance of being eaten. Basically, it can serve as a form of “safety in numbers”. This is known as predator swamping (or predator satiation). Shampoo Pond offers a pristine ecosystem where this hypothesis can be tested using these treefrogs.

In 2018, with the assistance of Katherine González, a Costa Rican tropical biologist, we conducted initial egg clutch monitoring studies in the hopes of determining whether this reproductive strategy has any impact on offspring survival. But this system has even more to it!

If undisturbed, gliding treefrog embryos develop and hatch into the pond as tadpoles in 6 days. But with so many threats, many wouldn’t survive that long.

Brandon Güell and Katherine Gonzalez headed out to the field from the research station. Photo: Brandon Güell

How can frog heaven get any more interesting, you say? Well, what makes these treefrogs particularly interesting is their ability to respond to threats by hatching prematurely!

That’s right! These embryos can hatch almost 40% early to escape the jaws of a hungry predator like snakes, wasps, and even monkeys! However, many of them don’t hatch early, and thus will die during predator attacks. We know the embryos have the ability to hatch early, but sometimes they don’t. Why?!

In addition to predation, these embryos are susceptible to desiccation, fungal infection, and flooding. These threats provide unique cues, which the embryos use to inform their decision of when best to hatch. This is called environmentally cued hatching, and it’s presumable a very adaptive embryo behavior— it increases their survival and fitness. But for the gliding treefrog, this behavior may not be as plastic or adaptive as in other species. Here in the Osa, another focus of my research is understanding the mechanisms which cause these embryos to hatch or not to hatch in these contexts at different developmental stages.

Our work has only begun at Shampoo Pond, and we hope that it will elucidate the conservation importance of this fragile ecosystem and its inhabitants, particularly amidst the current anthropogenic environmental changes in Neotropical rainforests.

 

Above: A series of gliding treefrog (Agalychnis spurrelli) embryo developmental stages. After embryos undergo early and late cleavages (cell divisions with visible nuclei), they form the dorsal lip and the yolk plug becomes visible. Later, embryo bodies rise and begin to show muscular response as the external gills form. Then, their hearts begin to pump blood throughout the body and external gills, and they begin to develop pigmentation. At three and four days, embryos begin to respond to environmental cues and can hatch prematurely to escape flooding and predators respectively. In the last picture, Brandon collects eggs in the swamp to study. 

 

Science and Research, Volunteers and Visitors

Golfo Dulce Poison Dart Frogs

Submitted by Steven Waldron; Seattle, WA

Twenty years ago, I backpacked and hiked along the wild beaches and coastal rainforests of the Osa peninsula and became acquainted with some of the fantastic wildlife that the region is well-known for. Near the Sirena station at Corcovado National Park, I became intimate with the loud squawks of Scarlet Macaws sailing overhead, the crash of surprised tapirs bolting through the forest, and the pre-dawn chorus of Howler monkeys. One of the sensory aspects I appreciate most about exploring this region is the rich array of sounds that greets the rainforest naturalist. The forests of the Osa are alive with every kind of exotic screech, hoot, cry, whistle and howl. However, there was one voice that alluded me during that first trip many years ago; that of a little poison dart frog unique to the region, Phyllobates vittatus, the Golfo Dulce poison dart frog. Though the call of Phyllobates vittatus was certainly in the mix of the rainforest cacophony that greeted me back then, I just didn’t know how to identify it and discover its secrets within the complex mystery of the jungle matrix. On a recent trip to the Cabo Matapalo region, I was focused on encountering this beautiful red/black/green jewel of a frog and to document some of its natural history and beauty in photos.

From my research, I knew that Phyllobates vittatus is endemic to southwestern Costa Rica and found from Domincal in the north to (likely) the Boruca peninsula in the south. Due to its limited distribution, P. vittatus is listed by the IUCN as an endangered species. P. vittatus is known to inhabit primary forest microhabitats near streams; it’s diurnal and dwells in the leaf litter of the forest understory. Phyllobates vittatus is one of the true poison dart frogs with another sister species found in the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica and Panama (Phyllobates lugubris) and three other known relative species in the Chocó rainforest of Colombia (Phyllobates aurotaenia, Phyllobates bicolor and Phyllobates terribilis). The evolutionary links to the Chocó appear to be a common theme in Osa natural history.

19881843978_7859cdbac4_oDuring our first day in the Matapalo forest, my wife and I went for a late afternoon walk along a perennial creek with a rocky stream bed covered in fallen leaves. It seemed like the ideal habitat for Phyllobates vitiates, and it was! My wife found our first Phyllobates vittatus hanging out in a sheltered spot below a fallen log. Interestingly, I found this very frog in the same spot during my informal surveys over the course of the next week. P. vittatus appears to be fairly territorial in its habits. As the night was approaching quickly, my wife and I decided to resume our Phyllobates search for the following morning. A few hours after the next dawn, we were rewarded with the discovery of several vocalizing males singing from the creek banks. Luckily, I was able to photograph the frogs in their microhabitat and witnessed several courting male/female pairs.

Despite their toxic nature and bold coloration, P. vittatus is a fairly shy frog that is more often heard than seen. Once you learn the song of this frog, you realize that they are locally abundant in the Osa forests. However, the calling males will usually quickly fall silent and retreat into rock crevices or leaf litter when they feel threatened or discovered. Without this interruption, the typical reproduction process would proceed as follow:

The male P. vittatus serenades the female as she looks on. If all goes well, and both parties are mutually interested, the pair will retire to a sheltered spot in the fallen leaves where they will lay 7 to 21 eggs. The eggs will hatch in a couple of weeks; during that time period the male will periodically return to the developing embryos and moisten them with water shed from a specialized patch of vascularized tissue on his posterior. When the tadpoles hatch, they will then be visited by their father, climb onto his back and he will hop off into the forest to find a small pool of water for them to complete their development into little frogs some forty-five days later.

As our days of birding, botanizing and frogging unfolded during our relaxing week in Cabo Matapalo, the song of Phyllobates vittatus was a constant companion as it greeted us cheerfully from nearly every creek, spring and stream bed along the forest trails we visited. I came to look forward to hearing it as much as I enjoyed the raucous call of the macaws, the screech of the parakeets, the complaints of monkeys and the crashing of waves along the wild beaches. I realized that Phyllobates vittatus presence in these forests is a small but critical voice in the rich tapestry of biodiversity that gives southwestern Costa Rica its unique and charming character.

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