Frog Research

Credits: Alex Munteneau

Behavioural flexibility in anuran amphibians

The funding of a Hertha Firnberg project (FWF T 699) for Eva Ringler allowed her to start the investigation of the cognitive aspects of brood care in poison-arrow frogs.

Allobates femoralis
Credits: Andrius Pasukonis

The general aim of the project is to investigate mechanisms of activational behavioural plasticity (i.e. behavioural flexibility) in anuran amphibians, using the Neotropical frog Allobates femoralis and the Northern Leopard Frog Rana pipiens as model species. Activational behavioural plasticity encompasses short-term effects, where the behavioural response is solely induced by the current situation. Specifically, she wants to test the effect of novel or the absence of specific stimuli on the individual behaviour and brain activity in order to identify cognitive processes involved in activational behavioural flexibility. To this end, she will use a combined approach of field and laboratory experiments, in order to investigate behavioural flexibility in the two model species. By comparing results of this project to findings in other vertebrate taxa, this shall give important insight in the evolution of behavioural plasticity in parental care and sexual selection not only for anuran amphibians, but also for vertebrates in general.

The specific aims of the project are:

  • investigating mechanisms of spontaneous behavioural flexibility in an uni-parental species with generally fixed sex-specific parental roles
  • identifying parameters that trigger highly stereotyped parental behaviours
  • localize and quantify changes in metabolic brain activity due to processing of novel information content of acoustic and visual stimuli in an anuran amphibian

In A. femoralis, terrestrial clutches are laid in male territories, females abandon the clutch after oviposition, and after hatching males transport tadpoles to nearby water bodies. Male removal experiments have corroborated previous preliminary field observations that females flexibly take over parental duties in cases where males are absent at the critical time of tadpole hatching (see Ringler et al. 2015 Behavioral Ecology). In a follow-up experiment we investigated whether males and females differentiate between their own offspring and unrelated young. Males followed the simple rule ‘care for any clutch inside my territory’, while females remembered the exact locations of their oviposition sites and provided care only for clutches found precisely at these sites (Ringler et al. 2016 Animal Behaviour).