World's weirdest: Meet the purple frog flaunting nature’s most bizarre backside

This unusual looking amphibian has a long sensitive snout, lives underground and has a ‘near threatened’ status.

You could say that the purple frog resembles a turtle without its shell. That’s what the good people of Idukki in Kerala say. Or you could say that this amazing amphibian looks like a bruised, bloated beanbag with beady eyes and a bootylicious backside. That’s what I say. 

Evolution rightly has no respect for conventional beauty standards. Instead, it sculpts and tweaks the forms of living things so they become adapted to their environment.

What does a purple frog look like?

The purple frog is a fossorial species, which means it’s a burrower. Adults spend most of their lives underground, where their short, strong, spade-like hindlimbs are used for digging, and their hard-palmed forelimbs are used to drive their bodies downwards.

Their small eyes reflect a life with little need for sight, while their tapered snout and small heads add to their triangular shape overall, which helps them forge their way through the damp earth of their forest homes.

Why the long nose?

Their snouts are sensitive, with a protuberance that overhangs their small mouths. This helps them to probe around for termites (their favourite food), which are sucked up via their fluted tongues. 

The mole-sized frogs live exclusively in the Western Ghats of southern India, where individuals have been found in burrows, up to a metre (3ft) deep. 

Breeding habits of the purple frog

Adults emerge just once a year to breed. Males announce their exit from the underworld with an unusual vocal cry, that sounds like a chicken on helium. After that, mating is timed to occur with the pre-monsoon rains, enabling females to lay their eggs in shallow streams when the water levels are low. 

The tadpoles hatch as the rains pound down and trickling streams are transformed into fast-flowing torrents. Fortunately for the tadpoles, evolution has endowed them with strong, sucky mouthparts that help them to cling to the rocks.

A species in decline

Unfortunately for the tadpoles, this makes them sitting ducks for local people who find them delicious and have been harvesting them for decades. The tadpoles can be swept from the rocks with a broom, and then collected in baskets downstream. 

Along with habitat loss, climate change and fungal disease, this is one of the reasons for the purple frog’s decline. The species is currently listed as ‘near threatened’ and conservationists are concerned that local extinctions caused by harvesting, could ultimately push the species to global extinction. 

This would be a devastating blow.

A once-in-a-century find

When it was first discovered and described scientifically, back in 2003, scientists called it a ‘once in a century’ find. DNA tests put the frog in a new family, with roots dating back over 130 million years. This means that the lineage has been around since before the breakup of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana.

Ancestors of today’s little frog witnessed the genesis of new continents, the demise of the dinosaurs, the evolution of mammals and the rise of our species. Let’s hope it gets to keep digging for another few million years, at the very least. 

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