Haas Hears A Who

Scientists searching for “lost amphibians” have discovered the Old World’s smallest frog, living in carnivorous pitcher plants in the jungles of Borneo.

As in the Dr. Seuss fable Horton Hears a Who, the pea-sized creatures were detected only because of the sound they made.

According to Malaysian herpetologist Indaeil Das, who discovered the frog with his colleague Alexander Haas of Germany, it was the wee beasties’ “harsh rasping notes” at dusk that drew their attention.

“We heard the calls of this frog and we knew the calls of all frogs in the area and this was different,” Das told AFP. “At first we couldn’t see it, but eventually we found it. I had to trap the frog in one of my baby son’s clean white diapers in order to really see what it looked like, it was so tiny.”

“You often get tiny frogs making quite a noise,” confirmed herpetologist Robin Moore, who is leading expeditions worldwide bent on rediscovering a hundred species of “lost amphibians” declared extinct. Das will join Moore in Indonesia in September, to search for the Sambas stream toad, last seen in the 1950s.

The frog heard by Haas and Das had not previously been classified; museum specimens collected more than a hundred years ago were misidentified as juveniles of another species.

The frog has been dubbed Microhyla nepenthicola, in honor of the Nepenthes ampullaria species of miniature pitcher plant that it needs to breed.

Although the micro-beast is “definitely the tiniest [frog] in Asia, Africa and Europe,” says Das, it is not as small as this frog, Eleutherodactylus iberia, which lives in Cuba, and as yet has no English common name.

The frog was found alongside a road in Kubah National Park in Malaysia’s Sarawak state on Borneo in 2004, but word didn’t get out until last week, when the taxonomic journal Zootaxa published Haas and Das’ findings. Considering the planet-wide stress to which amphibians are subjected—more than a third of all species are threatened with extinction—it might not be a bad idea to keep quiet about such things.

The frog measures just 3.0 millimetres when it metamorphoses from a tadpole, and grows to a whopping 9.0 to 11.0 millimetres as an adult. It has been slotted in the Microhylid family of frogs, none of which manage to reach 15.0 millimetres. Most Microhylids are Asian tree frogs.

These particular Microhylids hang out in the miniature pitcher plant Nepenthes ampullaria, which has a globular pitcher and grows in damp, shady forests. Pitcher plants are often carnivorous; this particular species eats ants, but it leaves the frogs alone.

At dusk, male frogs typically gather around a pitcher plant and sing a “love song” for females: raspy, minutes-long serenades separated by brief silences. This frog symphony can go on for several hours, Moore reports.

It was the frog’s croak that convinced Haas and Das that they had stumbled upon a new species, and not a band of juveniles: only adult frogs, says Moore, can sing.

Once an earnestly rasping male has convinced a female to get jiggy with him, the female deposits her eggs over the side of a pitcher plant. Tadpoles grow and metamorphize in the still water that collects in the globular pitcher. Once grown, the frogs feed in and around the plant . . . and eventually get the ball rolling all over again. To bulk up for the rasping and the egg-laying, adults con-sume very tiny flies, young insects, or extremely mi-nute adult insects such as mini-ants.

Haas and Das hope the discovery of this Who-like frog will persuade Malaysia to ease up some on inviting into Borneo international ravagers. It is not known yet whether the new species is threatened or endangered, but the rainforests in which it lives are commonly cleared for lumber and palm-oil plantations. As I recently noted here, the Malaysian government is under increasing pressure—to which it is beginning to respond—to leave off permitting transnational corporations to greedily denude the national landscape.

Below is a version of the Dr. Seuss fable Horton Hears A Who, made in the Ukraine in the 1980s. It is not necessary to understand Russian, into which this film was dubbed, to get what’s going on. I really, really like the portrayal of the Whos here. Pretty magical.

(Thanks to my daughter, who emailed me a link to a story on these micro-frogs, and to faithful red reader possum, who linked to another piece on the Who-like creatures in his diary on the Great Pumpkin.)

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6 Responses to “Haas Hears A Who”


  1. 1 Elva August 31, 2010 at 7:26 am

    What a wonderful and beautiful story to see this day. I will think of it for a long time. Thanks to your daughter for e-mailing it to you.

    • 2 bluenred August 31, 2010 at 8:21 am

      Thank you. Yes, it’s nice to know these little people are out there. Next I’m going to try to find out about the Who-frogs of Cuba, who are even tinier. So stay tuned. ; )

  2. 3 Julia Rain (the daughter) September 1, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    I’m glad you diaried this. (Or is it blogged – can you diary something if it’s not on kos?)You included a lot of information that the initial article I read didn’t have. I especially loved the link to the extra pictures.

    Makes me wonder. If the only reason Haas and Das though this was a new species was because only adult frogs can sing – how many other separate species out there are mistaken for juveniles? I bet there are still a few.

    I think you should submit “Who-frog” as the official name of the World’s-tiniest-Cuban-dude-frogs. I really do. Who knows? The poor little things don’t have a name at all now, and we’ve known about them for years – maybe the Science People will go for it.

    However, Wikipedia is telling me that the Cuban people are called “Monte Iberia Eleuth” and that they are not, in fact the tiniest, as the tiniest is the Brazilian Gold Frog.

    Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleutherodactylus_iberia

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_Gold_Frog

    That second link has a neat little frog chart showing sizes of tiny frogs.

    I miss frogs. They used to be everywhere. I remember I used to think that summer hadn’t really officially began until I’d caught a (what I called at the time) mini frog (about the size of a penny). I of course let it go after I’d looked at it a while. A few years ago there was a regular sized frog who lived in my shower. We named him “khaki frog” do to his color, and he stayed all winter. I’d lover to have another bathroom frog, but regrettably my bathroom has no window.

    Frogs do all sorts of good. Apparently their skin is being investigated for it’s antibacterial properties and may help us defeat super-bugs. Other frogs are being researched because they may be able to help people re-grow limbs. I wish these stories were better-known. I firmly believe that frogs will be the saviors of humanity.

    • 4 bluenred September 1, 2010 at 10:27 pm

      Hi “the daughter.” ; )

      I’ll have to check the Wikipedia entries. Normally I am skeptical of the wikis, because they are so often so Wrong—13% error rate. I would think a Science Man publication might be more trustworthy than whatever drunk might have reeled into wikipedia to blearily type up some words. But maybe not. ; )

      Who-frog would be a good name. But if the Cubans already have a name for it, we should probably go with that; since the frog is Cuban, it no doubt speaks Spanish, too.

      At least one frog migrated here to the New Place from the Old Place, I presume on a plant. I heard it croaking this afternoon. Like the frogs in this article, it is very small, but has a big voice. I hope there is a woman frog around somewhere, and they can get together, and do what they’re supposed to, so that here “the frogs can go on” . . . sort of like the socks on the Titanic. ; )

      It would be nice if frogs were the saviors of humanity. Of course, Jesus tried that, and look what happened to him. : /

  3. 5 Julia Rain (the daughter) September 1, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    Yeah, I’m not sure Wikipedia can be trusted on this either, I just thought it was interesting.

    I certainly hope the frogs can go on. It will be nice, that the frog migrated on the plant to find girlfriend.

    I’m sure there is a frog, somewhere, that desperately needs to be called “Who-frog”.

    I think I’m going to keep “the daughter” attached to my screen name here :)

  4. 6 bluenred September 1, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Sure, you can be “The Daughter.” Or “The Ruler,” or “The Hoolahoe,” or “The Heamblow,” or whatever you want to be. ; )

    As for “The Socks Will Go On,” here, for old time’s sake, is a version that appears to be out of Italy. More than 3.5 million views, so I guess it’s good. : /


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