CAMBRIDGE, Mass., June 23, 2008 Biologists at Harvard University have determined that some African frogs carry concealed weapons: When threatened, these species puncture their own skin with sharp bones in their toes, using the bones as claws capable of wounding predators.
The unusual defense mechanism is described by Harvard's David C. Blackburn, James Hanken, and Farish A. Jenkins, Jr., in a forthcoming issue of the journal Biology Letters.
"It's surprising enough to find a frog with claws," says Blackburn, a doctoral student in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. "The fact that those claws work by cutting through the skin of the frogs' feet is even more astonishing. These are the only vertebrate claws known to pierce their way to functionality."
"Most vertebrates do a much better job of keeping their skeletons inside," he adds.
Blackburn first became aware of the clawed frogs while conducting fieldwork in the central African nation of Cameroon. When he picked up one of the hulking fist-sized frogs, it flailed its hind legs violently, scratching him and drawing blood.
Back in the U.S., Blackburn examined museum specimens of 63 African frog species. He noticed that in 11 species -- all in the genera Astylosternus, Trichobatracus, and Scotobleps and all native to central Africa -- the bones at the ends of the toes were pointed and hooked, with smaller, free-floating bones at their tips. Eventually he determined that these small nodules at the tips of the frogs' feet were connected to the rest of the toe by a collagen-rich sheath.
"These nodules are also closely connected to the surrounding skin by dense networks of collagen," Blackburn says. "It appears they hold the skin in place relative to these claw-like bones, such that when the frog flexes a certain muscle in the foot, the sharp bone separates from the nodule and bursts through the skin."
This claw-like structur
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