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Tree-dwelling frog that eats its mother's eggs rediscovered after 140 years

AP / Sathyabhama Das Biju

A frog that breeds in the hollows of trees and feeds its young its own unfertilized eggs has been rediscovered more than a century after it was thought to have gone extinct. Jerdon's tree frog was last recorded in the wild in 1870, reports National Geographic, but has since been found alive and well in the forests of northeast India. It's thought that the frog went unnoticed for so long partly because of the lack of scientists working in the area, but also because of its secluded lifestyle — the creature lives in holes in trees as high as 6 meters (20 feet) above the forest floor, making it not exactly an easy spot.

"It was magical. Of course we had to investigate."

The team of scientists who found the frog, led by Indian biologist Sathyabhama Das Biju, were lucky. They were exploring the area for other amphibians at the time when they "heard a full musical orchestra coming from the tree tops." Speaking to The Guardian, Biju said: "It was magical. Of course we had to investigate."

Biju and his team observed the frog's behavior, noting that the females lay their fertilized eggs in holes in trees filled with water, before returning later to feed the hatched tadpoles with unfertilized eggs. Most tadpoles eat vegetation and have small, proto-teeth in order to help them do so. Jerdon's tree frog tadpoles, however, have adapted to their diet, and instead of teeth have smooth mouths to suck in the eggs. "It’s very clear that they are feeding purely on their mother’s eggs," Biju told National Geographic.

jerdon's tree frog's tadpole

The tadpole of the newly renamed species Frankixalus jerdonii. (Image credit: AP / Sathyabhama Das Biju)

However, it wasn't until Biju and his fellow biologists sequenced the frog's DNA that they realized that Jerdon's tree frog had been improperly classified all those years ago. The species was originally named Polypedates jerdonii after its discoverer, the British zoologist Thomas Jerdon, but according to the new study published in PLOS ONE, the frog is actually part of a whole new genus, with this particular species renamed Frankixalus jerdonii. The genus "Frankixalus" is named in honor of Biju's former advisor at university, herpetologist Franky Bossuyt, and the new species comes with the suggested common name of "Franky's tree frog." Sorry Jerdon.

But Biju — who earned his nickname "The Frog Man of India" for discovering 89 of the country's 350 or so frog species — warns that Franky's tree frog may already be in danger. The forests where he and his team collected their samples from in 2007 and 2008 have already been slashed and burned as part of agricultural development, and industrial growth in the area — particularly pollution — is putting species in danger.

"We're all worried."

"This frog is facing extreme stress in these areas, and could be pushed to extinction simply from habitat loss," Biju told the Associated Press. "We’re lucky in a way to have found it before that happens, but we’re all worried."