"Frogs flailing in air, in space"
June 15, 2022 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Why is this tiny frog so awful at jumping? "The moment the pumpkin toadlet leaps into the air, anything seems possible. The tiny frog, which is about the size of a honeybee and the color of a cloudberry, has no problem launching itself high off the ground. But when the pumpkin toadlet begins to soar, something goes awry."
posted by moonmilk (70 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
 
Everyone really needs to click on the link and watch the gifs. I cannot overstate this.
posted by nolnacs at 3:52 PM on June 15 [70 favorites]


nolnacs is absolutely correct. Do not ignore nolnacs.
posted by moonmilk at 3:55 PM on June 15 [12 favorites]


I'm going to Hell for laughing at those, I'm sure.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:03 PM on June 15 [7 favorites]


"Frogs evolved the ability to jump before they evolved the ability to land, meaning not all frogs have mastered the second part of the process."
posted by Nelson at 4:07 PM on June 15 [26 favorites]


evolution giveth not a single fuck about your aesthetics or comfort or amusement

who knows

the pumpkin toadlet may outlive us all, perhaps this is the beginning of a toadlet maximizer era on this planet

breed toadlets, breed!
posted by lalochezia at 4:15 PM on June 15 [13 favorites]


Am I the only one worried about these little froggies being injured when they land?
posted by supermedusa at 4:15 PM on June 15 [11 favorites]


counterpoint

good job thomas nagel never heard of these fellas tho
posted by lalochezia at 4:16 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]


Who among us has not been so bad at something that our sheer incompetence has become a matter of scientific inquiry?
posted by the primroses were over at 4:17 PM on June 15 [74 favorites]


Is zefrank1 aware of this? I enjoyed some in-my-head listening to his voice read the first two paragraphs. It was in the mode of one of those introspective videos he made with the interpretive dancers.
posted by polecat at 4:18 PM on June 15 [7 favorites]


Perfect frog.
posted by Akhu at 4:21 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


DAMN this is a QUALITY link, thank you for posting!!!
posted by tiny frying pan at 4:34 PM on June 15 [9 favorites]


If this really is a "go for broke" behavior (which the article supports), then this is like asking, "why are those lizards so bad at putting their tails back on?", or "why are those vultures so inaccurate with their vomit?" or "why was JFK acting nuts about the Cuban missile crisis?" -- sometimes doing something crazy is part of the strategy! (citation needed for JFK)
posted by thandal at 4:36 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


"Frogs are famously moist" ::dies::

I love that this is about something called pumpkin toadlets and one of the people mentioned is named Pie (I know it's not pronounced that way, but I like thinking of it that way). Also another person is named Confetti. 🥳
posted by kitten kaboodle at 4:40 PM on June 15 [6 favorites]


"Am I the only one worried about these little froggies being injured when they land?"

They have a "backpack" made of bone. They will be fine.

I like the article's theory that they are so widdle that the fluid in their tiny semicircular canals of their ears can't flow easily, impairing that organ's ability to provide a sense of balance.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:41 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]


They live in the leaf-litter on the forest floor so I can imagine that presents a much softer landing than the cold hard mirrors in the lab. It must be quite shocking to expect a nice soft pile of decaying vegetation and land on glass instead.
posted by muddgirl at 4:43 PM on June 15 [16 favorites]


As I said on Twitter, this lil frog is like all of us; he's just trying his best.
posted by Kitteh at 4:49 PM on June 15 [15 favorites]


oh no, I'm getting paywalled from seeing the extremely important video clips

oh okay entering "butts@lol.com" as my email address worked just fine
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:14 PM on June 15 [10 favorites]


This frog is excellent at jumping, we're just really terrible at minding our fucking business.
posted by cortex at 5:42 PM on June 15 [31 favorites]


Any way to see this without having to login?
posted by symbioid at 5:48 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Really looks like they’re dead, dried out, and stiff — not very appetizing to anything that might want to eat them. If something hungry was digging through leaf litter all kinds of stuff might get launched into the air by feet compressing and then releasing springy twigs, leaves, and stems.
posted by jamjam at 5:48 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]


Any way to see this without having to login?

It might be different for different people or different browsers, but for me, there's an easy to miss "X" button in a little nub sticking off the top left of the login box. Click the "X" and the box goes away.
posted by moonmilk at 5:53 PM on June 15 [8 favorites]


So many challenges to the project. Every corner seems to have a fresh obstacle :
“It is extremely hard to catch underneath the leaf litter,” Confetti said. “Especially for me, because I’m colorblind.”
posted by Richard Upton Pickman at 6:02 PM on June 15 [9 favorites]


Can there please be a supervillain who takes control of all the screens on earth to play this? Can the next social media giant that crushes Facebook and TikTok please be Toadletr? Can jumping toadlet please be given all time slots on Fox News?
posted by snofoam at 6:12 PM on June 15 [7 favorites]


Is zefrank1 aware of this? I enjoyed some in-my-head listening to his voice read the first two paragraphs.

That frog is probably the most appropriate animal ever for his standard "butt-first -- oh, sorry, but first, ..." gag.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:19 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


I can't watch any of the gifs without saying "WHEEEEEEEE" as they fly through the air with their little arms and legs outstretched.
posted by wilberforce at 6:30 PM on June 15 [8 favorites]


It seems to me (I study anti predation behaviour) that the frog is just jumping away from a predator and playing dead as soon as it is in the air. Lots of animals assume rigid poses to pretend that they're dead.
posted by dhruva at 6:45 PM on June 15 [12 favorites]


Yeah it's no so much that this frog is bad at jumping as that possums are bad at playing dead. They neglect to launch themselves in the air at the start.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 6:50 PM on June 15 [11 favorites]


Those things can land just fine. They just think it's funny to mess with the researchers.
posted by jcworth at 6:59 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]


it's a heck of a thing to be reminded that frogs necessarily evolved "jumping" before they evolved "landing"
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:04 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


>Am I the only one worried about these little froggies being injured when they land?

They have a "backpack" made of bone. They will be fine.

Also, the thing that really hurts from falling isn't just speed but mass. The smaller they are, the softer they fall.
posted by JHarris at 7:13 PM on June 15 [9 favorites]


has anyone told Grogu about this
posted by the webmistress at 7:21 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


🎶 once the toadlet goes up, who cares how it comes down? / that's not my department, says Werner von Braun 🎶
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:22 PM on June 15 [21 favorites]


As Terry Pratchett once said, it isn’t the running to that’s important so much as the running away. I guess that at their scale, jumping is like suddenly vanishing from a predator and it doesn’t much matter, on an evolutionary scale, if they don’t recover well. It’s like flying fish, who can only fly a few feet, but well enough.

One of the commenters says, “I'm going to make my resume only these gifs. It will be faster for the HR recruiters to read.”
posted by Countess Elena at 7:29 PM on June 15 [13 favorites]


Who among us has not been so bad at something that our sheer incompetence has become a matter of scientific inquiry?

These poor frogs have achieved at least a 1 on the FishBike scale, maybe approaching a 2...
posted by equalpants at 7:44 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


(bursts into tears for the wee devils)
posted by aramaic at 7:53 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


I love absolutely everything about this. I love it so goddamn much.

Eeeeeeeeeeeee.
posted by sciatrix at 8:11 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]


I wholeheartedly approve of this post.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:25 PM on June 15 [22 favorites]


I wholeheartedly approve of this post.
posted by caution live frogs


Eponydorable!
posted by Night_owl at 8:35 PM on June 15 [10 favorites]


"Just because you are bad at something does not mean you should not do it, especially if you have a secret bony backpack and toxic poison glands."

New. Life. Motto.
posted by The otter lady at 8:40 PM on June 15 [10 favorites]


I won't be happy about this until I see them all get up after they land.
posted by amtho at 9:02 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


i dunno about anything else but Pumpkin Toadlet is just the best name ever.
posted by lapolla at 12:41 AM on June 16 [4 favorites]


“Am I the only one worried about these little froggies being injured when they land?”

To elaborate on JHarris's answer, it's the square-cube law: surface area increases as the square, while volume (and mass) increases as the cube.

This profoundly influences many, many things in biology and evolution.

For two different reasons, it's why small animals more easily survive falls. First, because the terminal (maximal) velocity of objects falling in an atmosphere is lower for smaller objects; and, second, because inertial impact forces scale with mass but the resistance to shear and compressive forces in connective tissues and bones are (relatively speaking) constant.

As they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:30 AM on June 16 [8 favorites]


This is the best thing on the Internet, as of today. Certified.
posted by TheFerridge at 6:07 AM on June 16


MetaFilter: expect a nice soft pile of decaying vegetation and land on glass instead.
posted by Splunge at 6:09 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


If it makes those frogs feel better, I also cannot jump.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:32 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Airbus Stall Warning (YT 5 minutes loop) - mute off and turn volume up.
posted by cenoxo at 6:43 AM on June 16


I can’t decide which jumping gif best represents my life.
posted by michaelh at 6:57 AM on June 16 [6 favorites]


They're great at jumping, just not great at landing.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:13 AM on June 16 [4 favorites]


One interesting thing about the article is its lack of speculation on the evolutionary advantage of its terrible landings, phrased in the form of the frog's personal intent. Maybe the frog is counting on pursuing predators not tracking it among its surroundings, or else it's hoping (and hopping) that they'll be too doubled up in laughter to give chase.
posted by JHarris at 7:25 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Perhaps striving for Jackass fame is a direction of evolution.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:27 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Evolution does not care about elegance. This is a simple demonstration of 'perfect is the enemy of the good', in that the larger pumpkin toadlets who could properly stick the landing are all dead.
posted by zamboni at 7:41 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]


"But sometimes it does pay to be tiny: “To a pumpkin toadlet, an ant is a huge meal,” Essner said."


Reminds me of Marcel the Shell
posted by shenkerism at 8:05 AM on June 16


These frogs remind me of an old George Burns movie, where he describes a less-than-successful Vaudeville trapeze troupe "The Flying Brothers": "They flew well, but landed poorly."
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:27 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Relevant article.
posted by aramaic at 8:31 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Humans invented diving boards and trampolines to do the same thing. This frog is just living its best life.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:43 AM on June 16


"The Flying Brothers"

I just realized I used angle brackets to enclose part of that phrase, which ended up being an invalid HTML tag and got ignored...should have been "The Flying (some family name) Brothers"
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:44 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


This is fantastic.

A tangent l, but I wholeheartedly vouch for the value of a Defector subscription. I mean, somebody's gotta help keep Ray Ratto in fish.
posted by East14thTaco at 1:02 PM on June 16


I'd maybe subscribe, but isn't their primarily range sports? Sports are a form of radiation against which my brain is usually proof.

(As judged by my history doing crossword puzzles. "You crossed the name of a sports figure with the name of a team. I am sending you to the toilet of infamy.")
posted by JHarris at 2:12 PM on June 16


JHarris: One interesting thing about the article is its lack of speculation on the evolutionary advantage of its terrible landings,

This struck me as well. I feel like they were too busy marveling at the frog's seeming ineptness to understand the implications of this behaviour. I need to read the paper, but generally when I see these kinds of behaviours, I start with the assumption that this behavior serves some purpose. In this case, the jumping reminded me of trap-jaw ants somersaulting away from potential predators. They also land in awkward ways (see here), but as Ivan Fyodorovich pointed out, the combination of small size and relatively safe habitat (leaves in the undergrowth) should prevent any serious damage.

Note that the frog has a distinct dorsal (upper) colouration in comparison to its belly. My guess is that as I mentioned above, the frog immediately assumes a rigid posture as soon as it is in the air, and by deliberately landing as an inanimate object, increases the chances that a visually orienting predator would not be able to locate it again. This may be because the frog looks very different now that it has landed (rigid pose, belly is a different colour (see second video in the Defector link)). Even if the predator sees the frog, and the rigid pose doesn't detract from an attack, in other animals it has been shown that the rigid pose prevents predators from actually consuming the prey. I've noticed (but not tested) something very similar with orb web spiders which are brightly coloured on the dorsal side and dark or black on the ventral side, and when attacked they immediately jump to the ground and turn such that their ventral side is facing up. Very hard to find, because the predator is 'looking' for a certain coloured body and not expecting a switch. I would be very interested to test the appearance of the frog in different orientations from a visual ecology perspective (ie using the sensory biases of potential predators)
posted by dhruva at 8:03 PM on June 16 [10 favorites]


I would be very interested to test the appearance...

I am suddenly very interested in this research, and that fact is itself an endorsement of the concept of generalized research finance.

"Why are you looking in to this concept?"
"Because Fuck You, that's why!"
"OK, keen."
posted by aramaic at 9:07 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


My guess is that as I mentioned above, the frog immediately assumes a rigid posture as soon as it is in the air, and by deliberately landing as an inanimate object, increases the chances that a visually orienting predator would not be able to locate it again. 

TFA says the frogs don't stay rigid long enough to convincingly play dead.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:41 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I wonder if part of it is just that the frogs evolved "just stick out your legs real fast to launch yourself away" as a survival mechanism, but never really had any evolutionary pressure to develop any sort of "and then" (on account of their tiny size likely being enough to keep them safe even with awkward landings)
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:07 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


“...but generally when I see these kinds of behaviours, I start with the assumption that this behavior serves some purpose.”

Well, you and sciatrix are both biologists — sciatrix, I think, has a lot of expertise in evolutionary biology — and I definitely am not a biologist, but this view in this case seems to me to be excessively adaptationist.

Ironically, I think even a search of my posting history would reveal I've been a bit critical of Gould and Lewontin and supportive of Williams, so I feel a bit awkward about this; but my sense of this is that I'm old and out-of-date and that the debate between structuralism and adaptationism is long stale — nowadays, my impression is that it's a bit silly to be dogmatic about this.

Which is to say, sure, it's likely that most or almost all traits are adaptive but that, nevertheless, all told everything reduces to reproductive fitness, which is comparative, and so "good enough" is good enough.

The structuralist view points out that there's a huge amount of path dependency in evolution. As these researchers speculate, if there was strong enough positive selection favoring small size, this could have overwhelmed the negative selective pressure against reduced equilibrioception and there just might not have been anything to be selected for in the equilibrioception system to make up the difference.

More speculatively, maybe all the other seemingly apparent possible adaptations that come to mind — like some more aerodynamic shape, more visual acuity, whatever — aren't as adaptive as they seem. They're too metabolically expensive, or they increase time in the air and increase vulnerability to predation by birds, for example. Meanwhile, a mildly reduced risk of injury with a strengthened back was fine.

This is how I'm thinking about it, but I'm just a layperson.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:26 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


I started laughing at the second gif and now I can't stop and I'm at work this is not helpful at all please make this stop. (And every time I think of pumpkin toadlet it makes me laugh even harder. My colleagues are politely ignoring me so far.)
posted by Nieshka at 2:00 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


TFA says the frogs don't stay rigid long enough to convincingly play dead.

Maybe they aren't playing dead per se, but rather attempting to disappear in the clutter. I mean, it says they are hard to study, so do they really have the research on the number who jump away and still get eaten by predators to back up that claim?
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:44 AM on June 17


This struck me as well. I feel like they were too busy marveling at the frog's seeming ineptness to understand the implications of this behaviour. I need to read the paper, but generally when I see these kinds of behaviours, I start with the assumption that this behavior serves some purpose

*twitches in adaptationist* well, there's your problem.

Less fliply, look, sometimes traits exist as byproducts of other traits or simply because they are less expensive to have than to not have. These frogs probably leap quite infrequently, almost certainly to avoid predators trying to catch them in the understory. Because they are so small, there are relatively few costs to landing badly: small animals have a comparatively large pool of leeway to avoid injury. Why invest a ton of resources into coming up with a way to land well, given those circumstances?

Why does the frog need to land effectively if it only ever jumps in case of emergency?
posted by sciatrix at 8:47 AM on June 17 [5 favorites]


(Yeah, okay, I'm being tart and I apologize for being cranky. Here's the paper, in case anyone else also went guiltily "I do need to read the full paper--shit, shit, shit, where is it, why don't these articles ever LINK them, it's always so hard to FIND--" and then foolishly noted that the link was clearly visible in the first paragraph of the second segment.)

anyway, I'm gonna settle down and dig in, because I bet you there's a more interesting story here than my kneejerk "well, of course it's obvious"; there usually is! I think I'm reflexively crabby about this one because I've been absolutely marinating in perspectives that are very focused on assuming that anything different must be deleterious lately. One of the things I really miss about behavioral ecology spaces is the understanding that everything's a tradeoff and sometimes it's just not worth spending the resources to do a thing well. I really like the popular piece because it's a question asking "well, why are these frogs so bad at landing?" with an eye towards reminding us that maybe sometimes being bad at things is better, actually.
posted by sciatrix at 8:57 AM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Ah! The first part of the full paper is not focused on the pumpkin toadlet at all, it's a comparative study looking at size constraints on the semicircular canals across all known taxa. Specifically, it's emphasizing particularly the relationships between the radius of two measures of the canals (the circuit radius and the lumen radius) and the animal's ability to estimate angular acceleration. That's really important for accurate jumping in frogs as well as accurate landings; in some species, it will also be important for catching relatively agile aerial prey. I bet you a dollar that pumpkin toadlets and other miniaturized frogs eat, oh, small isopods and grubs found in leaf litter that are not very agile at all, though. (This is a guess pulled out of my ass; I haven't gone to look yet while I've been typing.)

Notably, these organs don't scale with size worth a damn. Baleen whales have semicircular canals that are about average-sized for a mammal: a smaller version just won't do, here, and there's relatively little real benefit for going bigger even if you're increasing body size in other ways. Anyway, frogs miniaturize a lot, so if you've got ten independent lineages of miniature frogs, all of which are smaller than the larval head size of "average" species, what happens to the semicircular canals? How small can you go? What are the functional constraints of miniaturization? I think they do a pretty good job estimating the lower bound of frog size while still having any grasp of this kind of speed, honestly.

Then the writers go, okay. Okay. The pumpkin toadlets are working with some of the smallest semicircular canals you can fit into a vertebrate known to science. How does that reduced ability to estimate angle acceleration influence the jumping behavior of the toadlets manifest in the jumping patterns of the toadlets relative to more typical species? You have to be able to estimate how you're shifting in the air in order to land! There's some slightly dubious insight into the simplest trials they have to work with in which the authors conclude that you have the most angular acceleration at launch and the least while you're in the air, so it's probably hardest for the frogs to judge how fast they're twisting and turning while they're mid-leap.

And then the paper has a whole section where they go through four other competing hypotheses they've considered for why the pumpkin toadlets don't land well, which I will not summarize here because I'm a little embarrassed at being short earlier.

One of the other other things I think is really cool about this work, by the way, is that it's work done in collaboration with researchers at the Brazilian Federal University of Paraná. There's a very long, very uncomfortable history in evolutionary biology of doing fieldwork in exotic locales, often using considerable local help to execute the experiments, and then withdrawing back to a western European or North American institution where all the expertise and training winds up concentrated. Here, you have a team that is an international collaboration, and the authors of the pop science team have gone out of their way to speak with researchers with a wide range of seniority levels, with special emphasis on the Brazilian grad student in the middle who is probably the most likely to benefit from a career booster via the international attention. That speaks really well for this collaborative paper, and it's an approach I am really delighted to see in the reporting, too.

When I rotated off the grad student advisory panel when I was back volunteering with the Society for the Study of Evolution, one of the other grad students coming in was a gentleman named Henry Arenas-Castro who has been doing really good work advocating for ways to make the international scientific society truly international, encouraging researchers to work with local scientific communities and creating pipelines for especially junior students interested in ecology to network internationally and increase access. This aspect of this work really reminds me of him, and I know he's full of good ideas for things and initiatives to build with the SSE to help integrate non-American and European researchers into a more central place in the sun within the evolutionary biology community.
posted by sciatrix at 10:16 AM on June 17 [13 favorites]


"I didn't know you could fly"
"Fly, yes. Land, no."
posted by TwoWordReview at 1:39 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]


Who among us has not been so bad at something that our sheer incompetence has become a matter of scientific inquiry?
Are we talking referee comments? (I'm neither good enough nor bad enough at athletic things to draw attention. I have been laughed at by teenagers while riding a unicycle. I don't blame them.)
posted by eotvos at 2:56 PM on June 21


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