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'Frog from hell' tells of ancient land link

Intimidating creature's fossilized remains were found in Madagascar, but it has modern-day kin in South America.

February 20, 2008|Delthia Ricks | Newsday

MELVILLE, N.Y. — Skeletal fragments of a frog that lived millions of years ago are so imposing that their Stony Brook University discoverer has dubbed the creature the armored "frog from hell."

Fittingly, this frog has been given a netherworld name to match: Beelzebufo. In Christianity, Beelzebub was a name used for Satan and sometimes devils of lesser rank.

In the case of this tough-skinned frog, scientists clearly were focusing on its size -- 12 1/2 inches long and 7.2 pounds. It's as if it had found an ancient source of growth-enhancing steroids.

"Because of its immense size, this is arguably the largest frog that ever lived," said David Krause, a paleontologist and distinguished-service professor in the university's department of anatomical science.

With sharp teeth in its upper jaw, Beelzebufo was a "sit-and-wait predator," Krause said, capable of camouflaging itself in leafy terrain and ambushing unsuspecting prey.

Krause and a team of paleontologists unearthed the remains of Beelzebufo during a series of digs in Madagascar. The first bone fragments were discovered in 1993 and served as inspiration to seek the rest.

"It was almost an obsession of ours to find the skull and [the remaining] skeleton of this animal," added Krause, who said that 75% of the frog has been brought to the surface.

Krause, along with Susan Evans and Marc Jones of the research department of cell and developmental biology at University College in London, painstakingly removed Beelzebufo's fossilized parts, like an ancient jigsaw puzzle, from deep sediment that dates to the late Cretaceous period, 65 million to 70 million years ago.

That was the time of the dinosaurs, and Earth was a young -- and very different -- place. Antarctica, for instance, was a warm landscape with notable vegetation and percolating lagoons.

Krause and his team report their work in this week's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Even though Beelzebufo no longer exists, he has relatives living in South America, large croakers that belong to the family known as ceratophryines, or "Pac-Man" frogs. They are nowhere near the size of Beelzebufo, although they have become stars on YouTube.

Yet it is the existence of distant cousins in the New World that helps answer some very real questions about the geography of early Earth. Krause theorizes that Beelzebufo existed during the time of a super-continent called Gondwana, a land mass that ran from pole to pole and across most of what now would be considered the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

When the land mass that was to become South America broke apart, some of Beelzebufo's kin went with it.

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