The cicadas alone rivaled I-10 at rush hour. Their scratching collective hum hugged the bush camp like the black arms of nightfall.
But neither the cicadas nor the researchers were alone. After all, these were the lowlands of Papua New Guinea, just south of the equator. Everything is wet and hot. Sauna hot. Sundown doesn’t really mean cooler in the rainforest. It just means darker.
But there, so far from civilization, it was also—in its own natural way—incredibly loud. Surrounding Dr. Christopher Austin and his LSU research assistant, Eric Rittmeyer, were all manner of animal and insect calls, fauna rustling through flora and only God knows what else.
Experts estimate that scientists have described fewer than half of the island’s species.
Papua New Guinea is home to odd animals like kangaroos that live in trees and lizards that bleed green blood, and part of Austin’s mission is to decipher how the large island north of Australia became so richly and bizarrely diverse.
If you want to discover something new, Papua New Guinea is a pretty smart place to be—even if it is loud.
Still, one sound ricocheted in their ears, in their brains, in every soggy step across the debris-strewn rainforest floor.
Pointing toward it. Triangulating the source’s position, then advancing. Nothing worked.
It was all around them—low, persistent, and mind-numbingly annoying.
“Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.”
It sounded like an ink pen being tapped on a kitchen counter. It sounded like an insect. It sounded like anything but a frog.
“Out of frustration, we grabbed a handful of leaf litter and put that in a plastic bag,” Austin says. “As we were pulling out leaves one by one we saw this tiny frog jump off a leaf.”
Jump is an understatement. Imagine watching Michael Jordan take off for nearly 200 feet. This amphibian can leap up to 30 times its brief body length.
The miniscule amphibian is too small to study effectively with the naked eye, so Austin and Rittmeyer took a digital photograph and zoomed in on its features with their laptop.
They returned the next night with a digital recorder and microphone to repeat the process, capturing not only the chorus of ticking sounds—a sample can be heard on Austin’s website—but several more of the small frogs that measure just three tenths of one inch.
“They were all males calling for females,” Austin says of his squint-inducing find. “If they had not been trying to mate, we may never have known about them.”
Now known as Paedophryne amauensis, this newfound frog shot to international stardom in January when the BBC, CNN, NPR and other news outlets across the world picked up on a report from scientific journal PLoS ONE disclosing the results and research of the LSU team’s tiny discovery.
Not just the world’s smallest hopper, the Paedrophryne amauensis, many believe, is the smallest vertebrate in recorded history.
“I think that photo of a cute little frog sitting on a dime sold the story more than anything,” says Austin, a herpetologist who lays claim to 12 species discoveries, most in Papua New Guinea. “The thing is, we know next to nothing about the ecology of these animals.”
An associate professor of biology at LSU, Austin curates the amphibian and reptile exhibits at the university’s Museum of Natural Science.
“He has a very strong concern for vanishing rainforests,” says Dr. Fred Sheldon, the museum’s director.
Austin is an avid rock climber as well.
“He’s an intrepid explorer, very tough with a keen intellect,” Sheldon says.
When not traveling abroad, Austin’s team studies the lizards and amphibians of Louisiana and the Southeastern United States.
“Louisiana is a great state for this field of study,” says the UC-Davis and UT-Austin graduate. “There are lizards here with a genetic structure that I do not think have been correctly recognized. They may be a new species.”
As for the headline-grabbing discovery of the world’s smallest vertebrate, the California native takes all the attention in stride. He’s more concerned with the cause and effect of the environment on ecosystems of various populations than any buzz-worthy measurements.
Indeed, just two days after the PLoS ONE report, a museum curator at the University of Washington proposed that a parasitic anglerfish is more minute than Austin’s frog.
Debate over the anglerfish claim will go on, but chances are, there will always be a smaller species.
“The important thing is that these frogs are exemplary of a ‘canary in a coal mine,’” Austin says. “They’re a microcosm of what’s happening all over the planet with instances of habitat destruction and environmental change. I just hope that, if nothing else, this discovery draws more attention to these issues and those of biodiversity.”
With funding from a National Science Foundation grant, Austin will return to Papua New Guinea this summer.
Follow Austin’s many adventures and findings at museum.lsu.edu/Austin/lab.
The lizard king
Paedophryne amauensis, the micro-frog thought to be the world’s smallest recorded vertebrate, is not the first new species Dr. Christopher Austin has discovered. The longtime LSU scientist has tallied 13 new species with “more to be described soon!” his website proclaims. Since 2007, Austin has been describing new species during research expeditions to the rainforests of New Guinea, Borneo and Sri Lanka.
Among Austin’s finds are parasites, lizards and three previous frog discoveries. He says exploring remote regions and discovering new species are the most exciting aspects of his job. “It makes the hardships of literal blood, sweat and parasites worth it,” he says.