Published: August 2, 2019

3 Questions with a Scientist: Poison Frogs

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These quarter-sized frogs can adapt to hotter temperatures—but only up to a point.

A bright red frog with blue legs perches on a wide green leaf that has spikes along its edges.

Using supplies you could mostly buy at a grocery or hardware store, scientists crafted temperature-controlled habitats to learn more about strawberry poison frogs’ comfort zone. 

These tiny amphibians are recognizable thanks to their berry-red bodies with blue legs (they’re also known as the “blue jeans frog”). But something else that stands out is their ability to adapt in areas where people have cleared forests in Costa Rica. Now, some of these frogs inhabit open farmland—where it’s much sunnier and hotter. Field Museum frog expert Michelle Thompson answered some of our questions about the research.

A woman in a topical forest holding a very small frog on the tip of her finger.

Michelle Thompson holds a strawberry poison frog—small enough to perch on the tip of a finger. 

You found that strawberry poison frogs may not be able to cope if their habitat gets too hot. How do you hope this information is used?

This study adds to building evidence that deforestation has a negative impact on amphibians and other animals. Results from our research make it clear to me that working in conservation is extremely important and necessary, and I hope this information is used to convince others to join in and take action to conserve these species.

Amphibians are really dependent on the environment for their body temperature—therefore, they’re really impacted by changes to the environment.

Michelle Thompson, conservation ecologist and herpetologist
A woman sits at a table and holds a scanning device over an aluminum foil container.

Juana Rivera Ordonez in the lab, working with the mini temperature-controlled frog habitats. 

Justin Nowakowski

Why is mentoring important to you?

Juana and Adrian, both undergraduate students, were central to carrying out this research! Science is about collaboration, building on past knowledge, and building a foundation and creating pathways for future discoveries. Mentoring is critical to continue this process. 

Frogs can have such bright colors—some even glow. Are you able to “read” what their appearance signals?

Colors can play a variety of roles in the natural world and scientists don't always know the function of colors. However, the color of this frog has been pretty well-studied. The bright red coloration of the strawberry poison frog signals "Danger—don't eat me, I am poisonous!" 

Bonus question: What frog would you be most excited to find?

I love to find glass frogs. They get their name form their see-through skin. They are extremely beautiful and because their skin is transparent, you can often see their beating heart, bones, and organs—which is fascinating to me. 

 

A light green frog sitting on a dark green leaf. The frog's feet are translucent.

A glass frog spotted during Rapid Inventory 30 fieldwork in Colombia. 

Juana Rivera-Ordonez (University of Washington) and Adrian Manansala (University of Guam) led this project, along with Michelle Thompson, Justin Nowakowski, and Brian Todd. Their research is published in the journal Biotropica.