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Cool Critters: The Hairy Frog

July 3, 2008

The 4th of July is a time for cookouts, parades, fireworks—and occasionally, awkward family gatherings. Break the ice with some fabulous factoids. (It worked for the kid in Jerry Maguire.)

The hairy frog is one of 11 species of African frogs with claws. But that’s not even the coolest part. The frogs’ claws aren’t exposed all the time. They’re actually bones at the ends of the toes, tucked away nicely under the skin, where bones belong. When the frogs feel threatened they flex a muscle in their feet that forces the bones to push through the skin to scratch the offending intruder. That’s the coolest part.

In case you didn’t get that, the claws are bone—not keratin like cats’ claws, or our fingernails. And when everything is hunkydory, the bones are normal (albeit hooked and pointy) parts of the skeletal system. But when danger strikes—like when a person picks them up—these bones pierce the frogs’ skin. This can be a nasty surprise to an unsuspecting predator, but it also causes a pretty nasty wound to the frogs’ toes as well. (Scientists believe the claws eventually return to their internal position, allowing the frog’s toes to heal, but they aren’t yet sure if the frog is able to retract the claws once the danger has passed or if the claws settle back into place on their own.)

But wait, why are these frogs called hairy frogs instead of Wolverine frogs? Because the frogs came before the comic book character, but more importantly, because of their hair. During mating season, male hairy frogs grow “hairs” on their legs and sides. (See how ugly these guys get here.) But it gets even weirder—the hairs aren’t really hairs. They’re actually long pieces of skin packed with blood vessels that help the frog breathe underwater.

Hairy frogs mate in rivers. The female lays her eggs on a rock in the river, then gets the hell outta Dodge, leaving the male to protect them. So he sits underwater for days, breathing through his skin. Those “hairs” increase the surface area of the frogs’ skin, allowing him to get more oxygen out of the water.

So next time your great aunt Bessie starts tellin’ you about her bunions—or asking when you’re going to get married/have kids/get a real job—politely change the topic with a simple question like, “Have you heard about hairy frogs and their comic book claws?”

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