Glowing frogs and salamanders may be surprisingly common

Many animals —
from marine species like fish to corals
and land creatures like penguins and parrots — have a hidden skill: gleaming blue,
green or red under certain kinds of light (SN:
). But when it comes to amphibians, experts knew of only one
salamander and three frogs that fluoresced — until now.          

Jennifer Lamb and Matthew Davis, biologists at St. Cloud
State University in Minnesota, shone
blue or ultraviolet light on 32 species of amphibians
including salamanders, frogs and the wormlike caecilian, at varying life stages.
To their surprise, all lit up, turning brilliant shades ranging from green to
yellow, the researchers report February 27 in Scientific Reports.

The effect was strongest under blue light. Among all four-legged
creatures, the ability to absorb higher-energy blue light and emit lower-energy
green light had previously been documented only in marine turtles. The new finding
suggests that biofluorescence is widespread among

Different species glow in different patterns, the team found. Some, such as the eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), reveal strips or blotches of color. In others, like the marbled salamander (A. opacum), bones and parts of their undersides light up.

Different amphibian species have different glow patterns. The eastern tiger salamander’s (Ambystoma tigrinum) yellow-colored spots (top), for example, fluoresce green (bottom) under blue light.J. Lamb, M. Davis

Although the researchers didn’t test the mechanisms that amphibians
use to glow, the animals may rely on fluorescent proteins or pigment-containing
cells. Multiple mechanisms would hint that the ability evolved independently in
different species, rather than being passed down by an ancient ancestor of
modern amphibians.  

Biofluorescence may help salamanders and frogs find one
another in low light
: Their eyes contain cells that are
especially sensitive to green or blue light (SN: 4/3/17). Scientists could
also harness the amphibians’ ability, using special lights to search for the
animals during biodiversity surveys — particularly for those creatures that
blend into their surroundings or hide in piles of leaves. Lamb already has
hints that might work. As she’s prowled her family’s woods at night with blue
light in hand, she’s spotted the telltale glow.

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