LSU Professor Discovers World’s Smallest Vertebrate

Louisiana State University’s Dr. Christopher C. Austin made an itsy-bitsy, yet monumental discovery. His team found two new species of frogs, one of which is the tiniest vertebrate known to man. The previous record had been held by a small Indonesian fish. The tiny discovery was made during a three month long excursion to the tropical island of Papua New Guinea. Though the discovery was made in 2009, the findings were recently published in the Journal PLoS One.

When I say itsy-bitsy I mean tiny enough to fit on the tip of your finger. The frogs belong to the genus Paedophryne, which sports the smallest frogs in the world. The smallest of the two they named Amauensis after Amau Village in the Central Province of New Guinea. The tiny polliwog has an average measurement of 7 millimeters long. You can see this little guy pictured below, sitting on a dime.

Paedophryne Amauensis sitting on a dime (Courtesy of PLoS One)

The second of the two newly discovered species they named Swiftorum after the Swift family who funded the Kamiali Biological Station where the species was found. It is only slightly larger than its record-breaking cousin with an average size of 8.5 millimeters. You can see Swiftorum pictured below, in his natural habitat.

Swiftorum sitting in the wild. (Courtesy PLoS One)

Locating the frogs was not an easy task. Dr. Austin and graduate student Eric Rittmeyer, were intrigued by high pitched calls they were hearing on the forest floor. After several attempts to pinpoint the location of the sound, they decided to scoop up a bunch of leaf litter and bag it up. They then proceeded to search through the litter leaf by leaf until the tiny frog revealed itself. They were caught a little by surprise as they expected it to be an insect. Leaf litter on the forest floor provides essential moisture for these little guys to survive. It seems mini frogs have a tendency to dry out easily. According to the PLoS One publication, “this may explain the absence of diminutive frogs from temperate forests and tropical dry-forests, where the leaf litter is seasonally dry”.

This is a significant find because until recently, extreme sizes in nature were thought to be mostly supported in aquatic environments. For instance, the smallest known vertebrate before this discovery was a fish and the largest known is the blue whale. This led scientists to believe that extreme sizes were a result of buoyancy. Neither of these frogs live in water so this discovery challenges that notion.

For more information about Dr. Austin’s research, visit his laboratory page at the LSU Museum of Natural Science.

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Darrin Jenkins

Darrin is an IT manager for a large electrical contractor in Louisville KY. He is married and has 3 kids. He loves helping people with their technology needs. He runs a blog called Say Geek!