By Zeus! Cloning Wonder-Frogs

a1Zeus, aka Jupiter, “Father of Gods and men” was a philanderer. He slept with many females, not all of them goddesses. He fathered many children. And mothered one. Or, put it another way, he sired many and, personally, gave birth to one – Athena – in quite bizarre circumstances even for Greek myths.

Zeus approached Metis, the goddess of crafty thought and wisdom, with carnal intent, and Metis consented, not a crafty thought or grain of wisdom in her head. The first postcoital thought that came to Zeus’ mind was this: By Zeus! What have I done! Hadn’t it been prophesied that Metis would bear children more powerful than the sire, even Zeus himself? Or, rather, Zeus myself. Oy!

Minoan Axe

Minoan Axe

He tricked enamored Matis, who still was nowhere near the peak of her thinking abilities and, to impress him, she turned into a fly. God knows, perhaps, Zeus told her that he loves dung-flies because they were so cute. Zeus – the nerve of this god! – put her away inside his own belly and swallowed her down all of a sudden. He was too late: fly or no fly, Metis was already pregnant… by Zeus!

Swallowing a live insect must’ve given Zeus indigestion. Or constipation. Soon enough, he developed headache so severe, that only a sharp blade, preferably a double-headed Minoan Axe, could cure. Either Prometheus or Hephaestus, Hermes or Ares – one of those who knew what Minoan Axe was and how to use one, proceeded to cleave Zeus’ head and out leapt Athena, fully grown and armed.

Interesting way to procreate, no? Use your stomach instead of a womb and Voilà! Anyone can do it… not.

But some of the creatures surely can or, rather, could before they went extinct some 30 years ago.

Very well, then, leaving myths alone for now…

In 1972, in the mountains of Queensland, Australia, then unknown frog, Rheobatrachus silus was discovered. Nothing to it – just another frog, no big deal, thus the finding went unnoticed until 1974 when Mike Tyler discovered how it reproduced.

frogSimply put, the mother frog converts her stomachs into a womb. She swallows her own eggs and stops making hydrochloric acid in her stomach to avoid digesting her own young. Around 20 to 25 tadpoles hatch inside her and the mucus from their gills continues to keep the acid at bay. While the tadpoles grow over the next six weeks, mum never eats. Her stomach bloats so much that her lungs collapse, forcing her to breathe through her skin. Eventually, she gives birth to her brood through “propulsive vomiting”, spewing them into the world as fully-formed froglets.

“No animal, let alone a frog, has been known to do this – change one organ in the body into another,” said Mike Archer from the University of New South Wales .

The medical community was particularly excited. If this creature could deliberately stop making acid in its stomach, it might provide new ways of treating stomach ulcers or helping people who go through stomach surgeries to heal more quickly. Several teams started studying the frog.

Well, it seems like the idea of men spitting out babies they carried in their stomachs was not what made medical community study the gastric brooding. But never mind that. By 1981 the specimen of wonder-frogs disappeared and despite extensive field surveys, none was ever found again in the wild, and the last captive individual died in 1983.

A second species – the northern gastric brooding frog (Rheobatrachus vitellinus)—was discovered in 1984 in Queensland’s Eungella National Park. But a year later, it too went extinct.

Have they all choked up and died while regurgitating their own babies?

Two years ago, Mike Archer and the University of New South Wales team of scientists started experiments, which, if successful, might bring the extinct gastric brooding frog back from oblivion. They are using cloning methods to put gastric brooding frog nuclei into eggs of living Australian marsh frogs.

Some of the arguments against de-extinction don’t apply to the gastric brooding frog. Unlike the woolly mammoth or passenger pigeon, the frog isn’t a social creature that would need companions to learn from or travel among.  Unlike the mammoth, which would need to be born inside an elephant, the frog doesn’t need a complicated surrogate parent.  And unlike many of the candidates for de-extinction, like the moa or saber-toothed cat, the frog is small and can be reared in a laboratory. (Resurrecting the Extinct Frog with a Stomach for a Womb)

Now back to Greek Gods, briefly: There must’ve been a sizable population of  gastric brooding frogs, happily retching out babies in the vicinity of Mount Olympus to give Zeus such an ingenious idea of child bearing. If he had been more observant, he might’ve spared himself a Minoan Axe blow to the head and simply spat Athena out, sword and armor.

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3 comments on “By Zeus! Cloning Wonder-Frogs

  1. Really great post. I’m fascinated by the Gastric-brooding frogs and I hope that Mike Archer and the guys at project LAZARUS are successful in their endeavours to bring it back. The young frogs excrete a substance called Prostaglandin E2, which inhibits the production of stomach acid. The first few tadpoles swallowed may actually have been digested by the parent before the Prostaglandin kicked in.
    Studying these creatures could almost certainly do wonders in the field of Gastroenterology.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Granted we know little about Olympus biosphere, where Australian frogs could have coexisted along with sheep and goats to inspire Zeus (probably since the time of Noah). Still I wonder where Greeks got their weird notion of procreation – no records of their travelling to Australia(?).

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