Prehistoric frogs likely died in a swamp sex trap, Irish scientists say while solving an ancient mystery


A team of Irish scientists has solved an ancient mystery to use fossils 45 million years old to reveal that thousands of prehistoric frogs likely died in a swamp sex trap.

Paleontologists from Niversity College Cork (UCC) led by Dr. Daniel Falk and Professor Maria McNamara were part of an international team studying fascinating fossil finds from the central German Geiseltal.

The area is one of the richest fossil sites in the world – with the ancient swamp containing the remains of over 50,000 birds, horses, bats, fish and frogs.

The fate of thousands of frogs in the fossil layer hailed as a treasure trove of the middle Eocene has puzzled scientists for decades.

About 50 million years ago the earth was much warmer and the Geiseltal was a swampy subtropical forest.

In addition to birds, frogs and bats, the area was also populated by an ancient ancestor of the modern horse, large crocodiles, boa snakes and lizards.

Previous studies had shown that the frogs died during a period of the lake drying up or a severe lack of oxygen in the water.

Exactly how the frogs died, however, was a mystery.

The UCC team conducted a careful analysis of the bones – and came up with their sex-deathtrap theory.

“As far as we can tell, the fossil frogs were healthy when they died, and the bones show no signs of predators or scavengers — nor is there any evidence that they were washed in by floods or died because the swamp dried up.” said Dr. Falk.

The fossil Geiseltal frogs belonged to a species that spends its life on land and only returns to the water to reproduce in the mating season.

“Through the exclusion process, the only reasonable explanation is that they died during mating.”

Such a sex-deathtrap theory is not uncommon for frogs, which go into frenzy during the short, intense mating season.

‘Female frogs are at greater risk of drowning as they are often submerged by one or more males – this is common in species that come together in mating communities during the brief explosive breeding season,’ explained Professor McNamara.

“What’s really interesting is that fossil frogs from other localities also have these traits, suggesting that modern frog mating behavior is really quite old, going back at least 45 million years.”

The UCC team’s findings came to light following the reopening of the Geiseltal fossil collections of the Central Repository of Natural Science Collections (ZNS) in Halle, Germany.

The Irish team worked in a collaborative project with researchers from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.

The full details of the study and its conclusions are published today in the respected journal Paleontology. Prehistoric frogs likely died in a swamp sex trap, Irish scientists say while solving an ancient mystery

Fry Electronics Team

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