One of the most controversial environmental issues of the past decade now seems to have been solved thanks to the consolidated efforts of one U.S. and one U.K. researcher.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, researchers started getting reports of numerous deformed wild frogs and toads. Many of them missed a limb partly or completely, while others – even more strikingly – had extra legs or extra arms.

The reason behind the deformities became a hot-potato, with some people suspecting chemical pollution or increased UV-B radiation (brought on by the thinning of the ozone layers), while others leaned towards predators or parasites.

awe firefly Dragonfly nymphs responsible for the lack of frog legs (but frogs infested with nematodes may have a few to spare)

“There was a veritable media firestorm, with millions of dollars of grant money at stake,” says Stanley Sessions, an amphibian specialist and professor of biology at Hartwick College, in Oneonta, New York.
Eventually, professor Sessions and other researchers managed to show that many amphibians with extra limbs were actually infected by small parasitic flatworms called Riberoria trematodes. These nematodes burrow into the hindquarters of tadpoles and rearrange the limb bud cells. This interferes with limb development, and in some cases the result is an extra arm or leg.

While these findings explained the conspicuous presences of additional limbs, it wasn’t enough to solve the mystery of the leg- and armless amphibians.

“Frogs with extra limbs may have been the most dramatic-looking deformities, but they are by far the least common deformities found,” Sessions explains. “The most commonly found deformities are frogs or toads found with missing or truncated limbs, and although parasites occasionally cause limblessness in a frog, these deformities are almost never associated with the trematode species known to cause extra limbs.”

To investigate the conundrum, Sessions teamed up with UK researcher Brandon Ballengee of the University of Plymouth. As a part of a larger research project, the two scientists placed tadpoles in aquariums and added various predators to see if any of them could be responsible for this type of injuries.

As it turned out, three different species of dragonfly nymph happily attacked and nicked of the hind legs of the tadpoles; feasting on the tasty legs without actually killing the tadpoles.

“Once they grab the tadpole, they use their front legs to turn it around, searching for the tender bits, in this case the hind limb buds, which they then snip off with their mandibles,” says Sessions. “Often the tadpole is released […],” says Sessions. “If it survives it metamorphoses into a toad with missing or deformed hind limbs, depending on the developmental stage of the tadpole.”

Eating just a leg instead of trying to kill the entire tadpole is beneficial for the dragonfly, since tadpoles develop poison glands in their skin much earlier than those in their hind legs.

Through surgical experiments, Sessions and Ballengee confirmed that losing a limb at a certain stage of a tadpole’s life can lead to missing or deformed limbs in the adult animal. Really young tadpoles are capable of growing a new limb, but they loose this ability with age.

Sessions stresses that the results of his study doesn’t completely rule out chemicals as the cause of some missing limbs, but says that this type of “selective predation” by dragonfly nymphs is now by far the leading explanation.

“Are parasites sufficient to cause extra limbs?,” he asks. “Yes. Is selective predation by dragonfly nymphs sufficient to cause loss or reduction of limbs. Yes. Are chemical pollutants necessary to understand either of these phenomena? No.”

You can find Sessions and Ballengee’s study in the Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution.