Writen by Roger Downie, University of Glasgow and Froglife
Croaking Science does not usually urge its readers to study a particular scientific paper, but this is an exception. The paper is Schulte et al.’s (2020) review of research into amphibian parental care, a fascinating and essential read for all amphibian enthusiasts. Parental care is usually defined as ‘non-gametic investments in offspring that incur a cost to the parent’ and which provide some benefit to the offspring. Common examples are egg-guarding, and provisioning of young after hatching. Although some authors restrict discussions of parental care to actions that occur after fertilisation, others include activities like nest-building in preparation for egg laying. For example, we generally consider UK amphibians as lacking parental care: they deposit their eggs in water, then leave. But Schulte et al include the behaviour of female newts that wrap their eggs individually in leaves: this behaviour takes a substantial amount of time, so is costly to the female, and contributes to offspring survival by reducing predation.
Research into parental care tends to focus disproportionately on birds and mammals. Stahlschmidt (2011) in a review of what he termed ‘taxonomic chauvinisn’ found amphibian and reptile parental care much less studied than cases from birds, mammals and even fish. Schulte at al. redress this situation through a vast historically-based review, identifying 685 studies spanning the period 1705-2017. Early studies were mainly simply descriptive, but since 1950, there has been a greater focus on the investigation of explanations: what does parental care achieve, and what does it cost?
The paper’s Table 1 lists each of the parental care modes so far described: four in Caecilians; eight in Urodeles; 28 in Anurans. Some modes occur in all three Orders e.g. terrestrial egg guarding; others occur in only one Order e.g. wrapping of individual eggs in leaves by newts; foam-nest construction by many frogs. Overall, parental care is known from 56 (74%) of the amphibian Families. It is not really surprising that more parental care modes occur in the Anurans than in the other two Orders, since anuran species diversity is so high (Frost, 2021 lists 7406 anurans, 768 urodeles and 212 caecilians).
The first known report of parental care in an amphibian, remarkably, was by a German female natural historian and artist, Maria Sibylla Merian in 1705. Her book was mainly devoted to meticulous drawings of the insects she observed in Suriname, but she also included an illustration and observations on an aquatic frog, later named the Suriname toad (Pipa pipa), which incubates its eggs in individual pockets on its back: she saw the metamorphosed juveniles emerging from the pockets. I was lucky, on my first visit to Trinidad, to see this for myself. We captured a ‘pregnant’ female and the babies later hatched into the water, some still with tail stumps, others fully metamorphosed. Female biologists have been prominent in the study of amphibian parental care: in addition to Maria Sibylla Merian, Martha Crump (1996) and Bertha Lutz (1947) come to mind, as well as the four authors of the review under discussion.
Among the 500 or so papers that Schulte et al. cite, I was pleased to see two from the work we have done in Trinidad (Downie et al., 2001; Downie et al., 2005). These are about the Trinidad stream frog Mannophryne trinitatis (see Croaking Science September 2020), where the fathers guard the eggs on land then transport hatchlings on their backs to a pool where they can complete development to metamorphosis. Tadpole transportation is a common aspect of parental care in the neotropical families Dendrobatidae and Aromobatidae. We found that the fathers are choosy over where to deposit their tadpoles, avoiding pools that contain potential predators, and therefore contributing to their survival. The search could take up to four days. We wondered how costly this might be to fathers: to our surprise, transporting a relatively heavy load of tadpoles did not appear to reduce the fathers’ jumping ability, nor did it prevent them from finding food. However, four days away from their territory must count as at least some cost in terms of lost mating opportunities.
Schulte et al. conclude with a timely plea for a revival of teaching and research in natural history. As they say, natural history observations – on the distribution, numbers and habits of organisms- form the basis of all new ideas and hypotheses in ecology and evolutionary biology. They note that there remain many amphibian species whose habits are poorly known and that many novel observations have been made on parental care in recent years. They therefore expect that much could be discovered, as long as effort is put into new field work. Over 20 years ago, I wrote lamenting the modern status of natural history (Downie 1997, 1999), and Schulte et al. report that the loss of organism-based teaching and research is widespread. In the UK, there are moves to create a natural history curriculum, to complement biology in schools. I feel that it is much needed.
Crump (1996). Parental care among the amphibia. Advances in the Study of Behaviour 25, 109-144.
Downie (1997). Are the naturalists dying off? The Glasgow Naturalist 23 (2), 1.
Downie (1999). What is natural history, and what is its role? The Glasgow Naturalist 23 (4), 1.
Downie et al. (2001). Selection of tadpole deposition sites by male Trinidadian stream frogs (Mannophryne trinitatis; Dendrobatidae): an example of anti-predator behaviour. Herpetological Journal 11, 91-100.
Downie et al. (2005). Are there costs to extended larval transport in the Trinidadian stream frog (Mannophryne trinitatis, Dendrobatidae)? Journal of Natural History 39, 2023-2034.
Frost (2021). Amphibian species of the world : an online reference. Version 6.1 (accessed 29/9/21). Electronic database accessible at http://amphibiansoftheworld.amnh.org/index.php. American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA.
Lutz (1947). Trends towards non-aquatic and direct development in frogs. Copeia 1947, 242-252.
Schulte et al. (2020). Developments in amphibian parental care research: history, present advances, and future perspectives. Herpetological Monographs 34, 71-97.
Stahlschmidt (2011). Taxonomic chauvinism revisited: insight from parental care research. PLoS ONE 6, e24192.