For the past six years, researchers Katherine and Tim Krynak have been working to unravel the powers of an amphibian skin-changer in South America (Professor X called and he wants his job back).
Like Xavier's once-secret op, and almost everyone's favourite blue mutant Mystique (I sit firmly on team Beast), this tiny rain frog (Prismantis mutabilis) possesses the remarkable ability to change its skin texture. Mystique can instantly change her appearance using atom manipulation (automatic points), but we have to tip our hats to the frog, which undergoes the change from near-smooth to rough and spiky – a look the researchers have dubbed 'punk mode' – in just three minutes (not too shabby for a creature living outside of the Marvel universe).
The species is native to Ecuador's Western Andean Cloud Forest, where the team suspects this texture-shifting ability helps with camouflage from birds and other predators, much like the case of invertebrates such as the common octopus. "The spines and colouration help them blend into mossy habitats, making it hard for us to see them," they explain in a press release. "But whether the texture really helps them elude predators still needs to be tested."
Whatever its actual function may be, the strategy is cryptically effective: even after finding the frog, Katherine Krynak thought she'd collected the wrong species. After putting a spiny frog in a collection cup, she returned to find a smooth one in its place. Confused, she put the critter back into the cup with a bit of moss for comfort. “[And] the spines came back. We simply couldn't believe our eyes," she told the Amphibian Survival Alliance, who are working with the Krynaks to conserve critical Cloud Forest habitat. "Discovering a new species is incredible enough. You wouldn’t think anything could top that. And then you discover that it also changes shape, suddenly growing spines that then disappear. I just kept asking: ‘did that really just happen?’"
More amazing still, P. mutabilis isn't the only shape-shifting frog in the Andes. During the investigation, co-researcher Dr Juan Guayasamin found that Pristimantis sobetes, a known species of frog with similar markings, has the same texturising trait.
The exact mechanism behind the mutant-worthy skin puckering is still a mystery, but the team hopes to explain this in future studies. In the meantime, they will continue surveying for Prismantis mutabilis frogs to further document their behaviour, life cycle and population.