Everyone loves supercute animals, and if they come in teeny tiny form, all the better. Today, you’re in luck. Five tiny frogs – and we mean tiny – have been discovered in Madagascar and they’re so new to science, three of the species make up a new genus, Mini.
The largest is a teeny 14 millimeters (1.4 centimeters) and the smallest an even weenier 8 millimeters (0.8 centimeters), making them not just some of the smallest frogs in the world, but amongst the smallest vertebrates too. Meet Mini mum, Mini scule, and Mini ature.
Yes, those really are their names, officially described in the journal PLOS One.
How did they decide the names (and how had nobody got there first)? “We were as surprised as you are,” evolutionary biologist and lead author Mark Scherz told IFLScience. “We searched all the databases we could find, and nobody seemed to have used the name before. From there, the puns just fell into place.”
The smallest of the miniaturized frogs, Mini mum, is about the size of a staple, between 8mm and 11mm, just a bit longer than a grain of rice, and a potential rival for smallest frog in the world (the current reigning champ, Paedophryne amauensis, from Papua New Guinea is 7.7mm). The largest, Mini ature, is 14mm, and you can still comfortably fit a couple on your thumbnail.
Madagascar is home to around 350 species of frog, and many of them have evolved independently to be tiny, which can make finding them a challenge.
“It takes a lot of practice and patience. You can spend an hour looking for a single calling male, only to fail to catch him in the end. Females you can only really find by chance,” Scherz told us. “Fortunately, they are often locally abundant, making things somewhat easier.”
Once you’ve found them though, the difficulty doesn’t stop there.
“When frogs evolve small body size, they start to look remarkably similar, so it is easy to underestimate how diverse they really are,” Scherz said in an emailed press release. He and his team had to resort to microCT scanning to identify minute differences in the bones and even teeth of the tiny creatures, to be sure they were a new genus and species.
So, why is Madagascar a hotspot for independently evolving miniature frogs?
“It's not just in Madagascar, but also in South East Asia and South America, that tiny frogs are evolving again and again. There must be something adaptive to it, or at least, it must not be so disadvantageous that it gets erased by natural selection,” Scherz said. “Very possibly it is related to the fact that they can explore more complicated habitats, getting away from predators and tapping into the resources that are too small for larger frogs to exploit.”
“It also means you can fit the same population size into a smaller area,” he added. “Madagascar… [has] an extremely high rate of deforestation – just taking a glance at Google Earth imagery makes it clear just how severe the deforestation in that area has been, and how much habitat has been lost.”
Which is why capturing the public's attention and interest though quirky or pun-tastic names is not just being frivolous, but can make science accessible and engaging.
“That hasn't stopped a few people saying that [Swedish botanist] Linnaeus must be turning in his grave," Scherz said, "but on the other hand, Linnaeus also erected the genus Phallus, and if that isn't humorous taxonomy, I don't know what is.”