Tag Archive | poison dart frog

Colorful clearwing moths warn would-be attackers: “Eat me if you dare!”

As you might intuitively guess, animals that are brightly colored are probably best avoided in the rainforest. One example that comes to mind are the showy dendrobatid frogs of the New World tropics. Known commonly as the ‘poison dart frogs,’ these amphibians are toxic and advertise that fact with flamboyant colors of bright reds, yellows, greens, and even striking blues. These colors warn would-be predators that ‘I taste bad at best, and at worst, I will kill you!’

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The strawberry poison-dart frog, also known as the blue-jeans frog (Oophaga pumilio), is native to the rainforests of Central America. Although the frog is not terribly dangerous to humans (few poison frogs are extremely toxic), there are easier things to digest in the rainforest.

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Another colorful frog from Central America: the green and black poison dart frog (Dendrobates auratus).

Indeed, in nature many animals that are conspicuous in their coloration or behavior do not make a good meal. Most often, such animals are protected by toxins or poisons that they either manufacture de novo or acquire from their food. The famous dart frogs of American rainforests advertise their deadly batrachotoxins with gaudy and obvious colors, toxins which they acquire from the invertebrates—mostly ants and small beetles—that they eat.

Other animals, like an almost endless variety of colorful rainforest butterflies, feed on plants as caterpillars or flowers as adults that provide them with a wide range of noxious chemical compounds that they are able to store. These insects advertise their distastefulness with flashy colors, bold wing patterns, and slow, daring flight. Should a predator attack, it will quickly learn to avoid similar colors and patterns in the future; with these creatures, relatively few individuals bear the cost of educating predators of the toxicity of their species.

Butterflies, nearly without exception, fly during the day when they can use their flashy colors to warn their visually-oriented predators—birds, mostly—of their distastefulness. Moths, on the other hand, generally fly by night, when bright colors serve as a poor warning signal to nocturnal predators that generally hunt without the aid of good vision. In the rainforests of Madre de Dios, however, one group of moths stands as a striking exception to this rule. Here, a large number of species of clearwing moths have evolved a remarkable variety of garish colors, wing patterns, and strange forms; they fly boldly by day, practically daring prospective predators to attack them.

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Clearwing moths come in a wide variety of colors, patterns, and forms–whatever works in teaching predators that “I taste bad!”

These clearwings belong to a subfamily of moths that entomologists have named the ‘Arctiinae.’ The name comes from the Greek αρκτος, which means ‘a bear’—this refers to the North American common name for their caterpillars: the wooly bears. Some species of wooly bear caterpillars feed on plants that provide them with toxic compounds that they can store in various parts of their bodies as larvae. As a result, the caterpillars are protected from attack by predators that have learned the hard way to avoid them. Other arctiine species acquire their chemicals as adults, often storing them in the integument—the entomological word for the insects’ skin or, more accurately, their exoskeleton.

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Here, an clearwing moth visits the flower of a Heliotropium plant in the Amazon rainforest, from which he acquires compounds known as alkaloids. These chemicals are toxic and very distasteful; the moth is able to eat and store them without getting sick himself. When a bird eats an alkaloid-laden moth, the reaction can be dramatic, and very unpleasant.

The clearwing arctiine moths are a brilliant example of one an almost endless variety of incredible ways that rainforest animals protect themselves from the legions of predators that constantly patrol the forest floor, interior, and canopy looking for a meal. Whereas many animals—including most other moths—have opted to hide during the day, coming out cautiously only under the cover of darkness, these colorful moths fly by day, warning would-be attackers: “Eat me if you dare!

Cryptic Amazonian poison-dart frog diversity

This is a species of poison-dart frog from Tambopata, Allobates femoralis.

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While not very large or particularly showy–or very poisonous, for that matter–these frogs are very interesting in that they show extreme variation throughout their range. Researchers have discovered that distinct populations that are separated by geologic barriers, such as large Amazonian rivers, have different calling patterns; some populations have a two-note call, whereas other populations have a three- or four-note call. These might seem like unimportant differences, but they may be all that are required to isolate populations and lead to speciation. For instance, if females in one region prefer males that have a four-note call, they might not breed with males that have, say, a two-note call, and over time this can cause a new species to arise from that population. Add in large rivers that form barriers to populations mixing, and you’ve got the potential for a huge amount of genetic diversity and confusion for biologists trying to understand the distribution of frog diversity here. Just another way in which the Amazon continues to reveal its biodiversity to those who pay close attention to it!

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