NAT_221118 NYUAD Research_SZ 6-1668774719635

Abu Dhabi: A team of researchers from NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) has discovered new insights into the evolution of colour patterns in frogs and toads — collectively known as anurans.

In their paper published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, the researchers of the Evolutionary Genomics Lab at NYUAD completed a broad-scale comparative analysis, which included over 2,700 species of anurans, to further the understanding of the evolutionary history of the vertebral stripe.

Sandra Goutte, PhD, a research associate at the Evolutionary Genomics Lab at NYUAD, said: “Our findings establish that the vertebral stripe in frogs and toads holds a great potential in the field of evolutionary biology as it represents a clear example of repeated evolution.

“Studying this colour pattern in other species can thus help us understand to which extent evolution predictably employs the same molecular paths when identical phenotypes evolve under similar selection pressures. The identification of ASIP’s role in the colouration of anurans by our team can also guide future comparative studies across vertebrates,” she added.

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Colour camouflage

NYUAD researchers found that the vertebral stripe has evolved hundreds of times and is selected for in terrestrial habitats where visual predators coming directly from above — such as mammals or birds — are more prevalent.

In contrast, the pattern was lost significantly more often in arboreal lineages — those living in trees — than in other habitats. While beneficial to frogs living on the ground, this colour pattern may thus be disadvantageous to frogs living in trees.

Animal colour patterns can help them camouflage with their surroundings and avoid detection from preys or predators. Many anurans have a light stripe along their back, which, when observed from above, creates the optical illusion that the animal is split in two halves and confuses visually-oriented predators. Although this colour pattern is widespread in frogs around the world, little is known regarding its evolution or genetic origin.

Understanding evolutionary history

To understand the genetic basis of the pattern, the researchers focused on the Ethiopian grass frog species Ptychadena robeensis, which is polymorphic — meaning that it presents the vertebral stripe trait in multiple forms — wide, thin or absent. They found that the gene ASIP is linked to the stripe pattern in that species. This genetic variation affects the level of expression of ASIP in the different morphs, a higher expression leading to a wide stripe and a lower expression leading to a thin stripe.

Closely related frog species

NYUAD researchers also compared the genes of closely-related species of frogs and found that, while they present the same stripe patterns, they do not share the genetic variation found in P. robeensis. This led the researchers to the conclusion that the stripe alleles found in P. robeensis evolved recently.

The researchers further conclude that the vertebral stripe evolves rapidly in anurans, which may allow species to adapt to environmental changes or variable conditions.

Colour patterns in anurans

This study is the first large-scale study of the adaptive value of the anuran vertebral stripe, whose evolutionary history has, until now, not been well understood. This study also establishes a link between the ASIP gene and a colour pattern in anurans for the first time. ASIP is a well-studied gene in mammals, known to be linked to melanin production and colour variation. The fact that it is linked to colour patterns in frogs opens new research avenues on anuran colour patterns and comparative studies across vertebrates.