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THE ESCAPE ARTIST EGGS

November 24, 2014

THE ESCAPE ARTIST EGGS

Discovering predator-induced early hatching revolutionized how biologists viewed embryos. It led to an enviable thesis and opened a research path that has earned numerous grants and sparked the careers of many young tropical biologists

In the early 1990s Karen Warkentin traveled to Costa Rica to see if the red-eyed treefrog could kick-start her Ph.D. Her aim was to study a frog that did something frogs in her native Canada didn’t. The iconic rainforest frog more than met her expectations. She discovered its embryos hatch prematurely when attacked by snakes, the tadpoles escaping to the relative safety of the pond below.

Discovering predator-induced early hatching revolutionized how biologists viewed embryos. It led to an enviable thesis and opened a research path that has earned numerous grants and sparked the careers of many young tropical biologists. Now a professor at Boston University, Warkentin and her students take over parts of STRI’s Gamboa Schoolhouse laboratories once a year to learn more about this treefrog and other amphibians.

Warkentin’s lab has uncorked dozens of questions about the escape-artist frog. Sensing vibration in their egg clutch alerts the embryos to danger. They distinguish storm vibrations to avoid unnecessary early hatching. They also escape from hungry wasps, and, if eggs fall into oxygen-depleted pond water, they hatch as well. Cheating death by hatching early, however, increases the risks tadpoles face once in the water.

“We’re building up a really rich and fascinating picture of the lives of eggs and early life stages,” said Warkentin, who credits many unexpected discoveries to hours of careful observation. “Just watching embryos really closely through a microscope or camera lens, we see things. And seeing those things leads to more questions.”

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