Vampire flying frog discovered

By Aaron Smith | January 13, 2011

It’s not exactly a blood-sucker, but a strange species has been discovered in Vietnam’s cloud forests.

HIGH IN THE MISTY and little-explored cloud forests of southern Vietnam, biologist Dr Jodi Rowley has discovered a weird new species dubbed the vampire flying frog (Rhacophorus vampyrus).

However, Jodi, officially based at the Australian Museum in Sydney, admits the name may be a little misleading. “This forest canopy dwelling amphibian…actually glides using webbing between its fingers and toes,” she says, and although the black, curved fangs that its tadpoles possess are almost certainly used for feeding, they may not have anything to do with sucking blood.

Nevertheless, a tadpole with fangs is a bizarre world first, Jodi says. “My theory is
they have something to do with diet. These tadpoles live in small bodies
of water in tree holes, each the size of your fist. Maybe the fangs are
for stabbing unfertilised eggs that females lay as a possible food
source, or maybe they anchor the tadpoles to the sides of the small
ponds.”

Freaky frogs

Dr Ronald Altig a biologist at Mississippi State University in the USA, who has examined preserved specimens of the tadpoles, agrees that the fangs may be involved in feeding, but says that can’t be confirmed without live animals. “That will occur only when and if live specimens can be obtained and videotaped while eating, and that is a big request as it will most certainly have to be done in the field,” he says.

Tadpoles of the vampire flying frog have two tiny black fangs, most likely used to feed (Photo: Jodi Rowley).

Since 2006, when Jodi completed her PhD partly funded by the Australian Geographic Society, she has been searching for new amphibians throughout Southeast Asia.

So far she has found a total of five. It’s a quest that can be hard work at times, she says: “I question my
sanity in the middle of the night during a monsoon downpour, when I’m
covered in mud and leeches, being bitten by malarial mosquitoes, and am
four days walk from civilisation – all the while attempting to make frog
noises – but it really makes you feel alive.”

Questionable sanity

She discovered the vampire flying frog with Vietnamese co-workers in the
largely unexplored Langbian Plateau cloud forest of southern Vietnam. The first one was caught in March 2008 by Jodi’s Vietnamese Masters student Le Thi Thuy Duong, from Ho Chin Min City’s University of Science.

“I saw the frog 1.5 m from the ground on a leaf and grabbed it,” she says. “Vietnam has one species of poisonous frog, [but] I wasn’t afraid, as I had never met one of these frogs before.”

However it wasn’t until last year while examining one of the tadpoles under a microscope, that Jodi observed the fangs protruding from the underside of its mouth. Expecting to find a beak-like structure typically found on tadpoles, it was then she realised they had discovered a uniquely different species. After consulting with colleagues she decided on the blood-sucker moniker.

The research is published in the latest edition of the journal Zootaxa (find a PDF of the study here).

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