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Offspring of DU Lab Frogs Colonize Phipps Conservatory

If you visit the Butterfly Forest at Phipps Conservatory, especially after sunset, keep your ears open for impromptu singing.

Don’t brace for a flash mob scene. You’re listening for Coqui frogs—generally the sound of Puerto Rico, not of Pittsburgh. But thanks to the resourcefulness of researcher Dr. Richard P. Elinson, a developmental biologist in Duquesne University’s Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, visitors to the Phipps can enjoy the sounds as well as the sights of the tropics.

Elinson holds a special place in his heart for the frogs, which are partners in his research of embryonic development. The Coqui (pronounced co-KEE) present an evolutionary anomaly among their ribeting brethren. Though their ancestors had the traditional tadpole phase, the Coqui do not. That is the point of Elinson’s research—studying early embryonic development of the tiny frog babies inside each mass of 30 clear jelly capsules. The eggs are laid on land and frog fathers defend them for about three weeks, until they directly hatch into little frogs that eventually grow to about 1 ½ inches long.

“They got rid of the tadpole phase, but how did they get rid of it?” asks Elinson, who has been studying the issue for more than 20 years. His work shows that although the embryos looks like frogs rather than tadpoles from the start, they still need thyroid hormone to complete their development.

While Elinson tries to unravel one of the mysteries of our natural world, he has collected eggs from the Coqui and examined their young. Frogs, in older age, do not produce high-quality eggs, so Elinson offered about 18 leggy veterans of his lab to Phipps, thinking they would provide insect-control and add to the biodiversity at Phipps.

“I visited Phipps a year later and heard them singing,” Elinson said. “That means the frogs must be reproducing, because they don’t live that long.  The singing adds to the atmosphere,” he said.

On your next evening visit to the Phipps, lend the Coqui your ears.

If you can’t wait to hear that tropical sound, visit Elinson’s faculty page, which links to free, downloadable recorded Coqui ringtones:  http://www.duq.edu/science/faculty/elinson.cfm

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.