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J Exp Biol. 2017 Nov 1;220(Pt 21):3949-3954. doi: 10.1242/jeb.165126. Epub 2017 Sep 1.

Induced parental care in a poison frog: a tadpole cross-fostering experiment.

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FAS Center for Systems Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, 1090 Vienna, Austria.
Department of Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, 82319 Seewiesen, Germany.
Department of Integrative Zoology, University of Vienna, 1090 Vienna, Austria.
Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Medical University of Vienna, University of Vienna, 1210 Vienna, Austria.


Understanding the external stimuli and natural contexts that elicit complex behaviours, such as parental care, is key in linking behavioural mechanisms to their real-life function. Poison frogs provide obligate parental care by shuttling their tadpoles from terrestrial clutches to aquatic nurseries, but little is known about the proximate mechanisms that control these behaviours. In this study, we used Allobates femoralis, a poison frog with predominantly male parental care, to investigate whether tadpole transport can be induced in both sexes by transferring unrelated tadpoles to the backs of adults in the field. Specifically, we asked whether the presence of tadpoles on an adult's back can override the decision-making rules preceding tadpole pick-up and induce the recall of spatial memory necessary for finding tadpole deposition sites. We used telemetry to facilitate accurate tracking of individual frogs and spatial analysis to compare movement trajectories. All tested individuals transported their foster-tadpoles to water pools outside their home area. Contrary to our expectation, we found no sex difference in the likelihood to transport or in the spatial accuracy of finding tadpole deposition sites. We reveal that a stereotypical cascade of parental behaviours that naturally involves sex-specific offspring recognition strategies and the use of spatial memory can be manipulated by experimental placement of unrelated tadpoles on adult frogs. As individuals remained inside their home area when only the jelly from tadpole-containing clutches was brushed on the back, we speculate that tactile rather than chemical stimuli trigger these parental behaviours.


Behavioural trigger; Flexibility; Parental behaviour; Spatial cognition; Tadpole transport; Telemetry

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