Biology Prof. Ryan Kerney helps solve 134-year-old mystery

A connection Biology Prof. Ryan Kerney made in graduate school has led to an incredible discovery. So incredible, in fact, that when the news broke in the spring, it was picked up by the Washington Post, Newsweek, BBC News, and several international publications.

“I’ve had a long-term collaboration with researchers in Sri Lanka, and they do a good amount of work in India and with Indian researchers,” said Kerney. “I started working with them in grad school, and we just had the opportunity to keep it going.”

So, what was the discovery?

A tadpole belonging to The Indian Dancing frog (Micrixalus herrei).

Scientists have known about The Indian Dancing frog for over 130 years, but no one could find its tadpoles, probably because they were found living underground in the streambeds of India’s Western Ghats. The tadpoles survive by burrowing deep into the gravel and eating sand and organic matter until they develop into froglets.

Indian Dancing FrogWhen asked what it was like to be a part of the project, Kerney said, “It’s great to be part of a team that makes a discovery and shares those results with other people who are interested in the same topic. It’s fun to figure new things out—especially if others have looked and missed it before.”

The dancing frog is best known for the mating ritual performed by its males—a sort of foot flagging dance where the males spread their toes and move their foot around to attract females. The frog belongs to the last of 56 frog and toad families to have its tadpoles identified, another reason the discovery was significant.

“We used a skeleton staining technique that I brought to Sri Lanka back in 2004 when I was doing my Ph.D.,” said Kerney.

As a result of the collaboration and another manuscript that’s currently in the works, Kerney was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship. The Fulbright Scholar program is a competitive program funded by the United States Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that offers academics like Kerney the opportunity to work abroad with collaborators in other countries.

Beginning in January, Kerney will spend six months doing research with scientists in Sri Lanka that expands upon the work they started, using specific molecular techniques to describe the embryos of tropical frogs.

Collaboration, of course, is a key component of research, and Kerney extends those same resources and opportunities to his students.  This summer, Elizabeth Hill ’17 and Huanjia Zhang ’17—who have been working with Kerney on research on spotted salamander embryos—will have the opportunity to meet his Sri Lanka counterparts when researchers from around the world come together at the 8th World Congress of Herpetology conference in China. 

Although known on campus for his salamander research, working with frogs is not completely new to Kerney, who starting working with them while studying amphibian embryology in graduate school.    

“There used to be just a handful of species of dancing frogs and that’s been expanded to two dozen within a couple of years because scientists are now using molecular techniques that better help parse things out,” said Kerney.

“It’s really fun to work in South Asia and in the tropics where there is plenty of biodiversity, especially to apply new molecular techniques. We can do a lot more sequencing than we did in the past—we used to be able to work on one gene or protein at a time, and now we work on many thousands, so advancements are moving very quickly. It’s a fun time to be a biologist.”

Watch a video of the newly discovered Indian Dancing Frog Tadpoles:


Learn more about Kerney’s research on his website.