Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Flying Vampire Frog Alert

By Stephen Luntz

A new species of tree frog discovered in the mountains of Vietnam has been given the blood-curdling name of the vampire flying frog.

Rhacophorus vampyrus was named by Dr Jodi Rowley of the Australian Museum, who described the species in the journal Zootaxa. She first found a specimen in 2008, but required assistance from locals to uncover further individuals for study.

Like other tree frogs, R. vampyrus is adapted to arboreal living with webbing that allows it to glide between trees. “They’re actually quite chilled-out frogs, so I’ve never seen them jump between trees,” Rowley says. Consequently she does not know how far they can glide. However, relatives in the group often known as flying frogs can manage to glide for substantial distances to escape predators.

“It’s pretty cool that these frogs have adapted to live in the trees so completely, even using water holes in trees to breed in and protect their offspring from all predators that lurk in rivers and ponds,” says Rowley. Although the puddles are smaller than a human fist, the environment in the cloud forests is so moist that Rowley says they hardly ever dry out, allowing the tadpoles time to develop.

However, the question of what one eats when in a tree puddle is more of a question. Rowley says it is possible the females lay unfertilised eggs for the tadpoles to eat. Rowley thinks that the adults “probably eat anything the right size that comes in front of their face,” which in a tree is likely to be mostly insects.

The frog’s most distinctive feature is that the tadpoles have a pair of hard, black protrusions from their mouths that look for all the world like vampire fangs instead of the beak-like structures most tadpoles use. It was this that inspired Rowley to give the frog its name, something which has done no harm to her quest to bring attention to the Bidoup-Nui National Park in which the frog was found.

Rowley remains mystified as to the purpose of the fangs. Food consumption is the most obvious explanation, but she also says that “it may enable the tadpoles to drag themselves out of the ponds”.