If You Give a Frog Testosterone, It Will Show You Its Foot

The male Bornean rock frog cannot scream over the sound of a waterfall. Instead, he threatens other frogs with his feet. The frog intimidates his male competitors with a can-can-like gesture: kicking his leg up into the air, fully extending his splayed foot, and dragging it down toward the ground.

This foot-flagging display may not sound threatening to a human, but its effect has to do with a frog’s visual perception.

To a frog, the world contains two kinds of objects: things that are worms, and things that are not worms.

If a frog sees a skinny object moving parallel to its long axis — like how a worm travels along the ground — it sees dinner. But if a frog sees a similar shape moving perpendicular its long axis — very unlike a worm — it sees a threat to flee from. Scientists call this latter movement the anti-worm stimulus, and it strikes fear into the hearts of frogs.

Frogs likely evolved this visual system to hunt worms and stay safe from larger predators. Now, researchers suggest some male frogs have evolved to take advantage of their froggy brethren’s fears by kicking and lowering their legs in a gesture that looks a lot like an anti-worm signal, as a way to frighten their competition.

In a paper published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers reveal that they could amplify the foot-flagging behavior of Bornean rock frogs by giving the frogs a dose of testosterone. The hormone acts on the muscles in the frog’s leg to exaggerate the gesture, meaning the more testosterone coursing through the frog, the bigger the foot-flagging display.

This flamboyant foot display, intensified by the sex hormone, suggests the frogs evolved a way to exploit their competitors’ unusual visual system to appear more dangerous to other frogs.

The new paper “provides an insightful perspective about how this hormone affects a neat visual display, foot-flagging, but also about what those changes may mean for the frogs seeing them,” Ximena Bernal, a behavioral ecologist at Purdue University who was not involved with the research, wrote in an email.

Bornean rock frogs are one of many frog species that wave their feet to communicate. In the wild, male Bornean rock frogs congregate by waterfalls and fast-flowing streams, which are very noisy. So the frogs evolved the visual signal of foot-flagging. The frogs have white webbing between their toes, making their feet even more visible among the dark rocks.

In the wild, it appears foot-flagging only has meaning among male frogs. When a female wanders to the stream, she exhibits little preference and will mate with the first male she sees. “But even while the male is on the female, he still foot flags,” said Doris Preininger, a researcher at the Vienna Zoo and author on the paper.

“Some species do it with both feet simultaneously,” said Matthew Fuxjager, a biologist at Brown University and an author on the paper.

Dr. Fuxjager had previously researched how smearing a dose of…

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