The Panamanian golden frog communicates with other frogs by semaphore in the form of gentle hand waves.
It has evolved the mechanism to signal to rivals and mates above the noise of mountain streams.
Shortly after filming for the BBC One series Life In Cold Blood, the frogs had to be rescued from the wild, due to the threat of chytrid fungus.
Hilary Jeffkins, senior producer of Life In Cold Blood, said the semaphoring behaviour of the Panamanian golden frog was very unusual.
“Normally, frogs would croak to get their message across but it’s too noisy,” she said. “An extra mechanism they’ve evolved is to wave to each other.”
The frogs (Atelopus zeteki) were filmed at a remote location in the Panamanian rainforest. The population had all but disappeared because of a fungus that grows on the amphibians’ skin and suffocates them.
The film crew was disinfected – to stop them from carrying the disease – and managed to capture unique footage of the frogs in the wild. Just after filming was completed in June 2006, the location was overtaken by the chytrid fungus. Scientists were forced to remove the remaining frogs from the wild and keep them in captivity.
Hilary Jeffkins added: “The whole species is now extinct in Panama – this was one of the last remaining populations. It’s its final wave in our programme.” Chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) is a major contributor to the decline of amphibian populations around the world, threatening many species with extinction.
My friend Gopi Sundar sends an update: “In the Western Ghats, there is an endemic genera called Micrixalus that also has intricate leg-waving. It’s quite amazing to watch.”
In a 2004 article, BBC had warned that “as many as 122 [amphibian] species may have become extinct since 1980 and a third of known amphibians face oblivion.”
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