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Rare Chinese frogs communicate by means of ultrasonic sound

First came word that a rare frog (Amolops tormotus) in China sings like a bird, then that the species produces very high-pitch ultrasonic sounds. Now scientists say that these concave-eared torrent frogs also hear and respond to the sounds.

The findings, to appear in the March 16 issue of Nature, represent the first documented case of an amphibian being able to communicate like bats, whales and dolphins, said corresponding author Albert S. Feng, a professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Feng, a researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, was introduced to the frog species by Kraig Adler, a Cornell University biologist who had learned about it while conducting a survey of amphibians in China. Feng continues to study frogs and bats to understand how the brain processes sound patterns, especially in sound-cluttered environments in which filtering is required to allow for communication.

Feng and colleagues previously reported that males of the species make these high-pitched bird-like calls, with numerous variants in terms of harmonics and frequency sweeps. Some sounds exceeded their recording device's maximum capability of 128 kilohertz. Human ears hear sound waves generally no higher than 20 kilohertz. The frogs studied inhabit Huangshan Hot Springs, a popular scenic mountainous area, alive with noisy waterfalls and wildlife west of Shanghai.

"Nature has a way of evolving mechanisms to facilitate communication in very adverse situations," Feng said. "One of the ways is to shift the frequencies beyond the spectrum of the background noise. Mammals such as bats, whales and dolphins do this, and use ultrasound for their sonar system and communication. Frogs were never taken into consideration for being able to do this."

Adler had drawn attention to the species because the frogs do not have external eardrums, raising the possibility of unusual
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Contact: Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
jebarlow@uiuc.edu
217-333-5802
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
15-Mar-2006


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