I’m preparing for my first field work in graduate school: I’m going to collect tissue from frogs in the Midwest this spring. Collect tissue. Does that sound suspiciously like a euphemism? To extract DNA from an organism, all you need is a little snip of something: a few hairs, a feather, a scale, a leaf. But amphibians don’t have any of those things growing on them. So I will be collecting frog toe clips.
Ow, you exclaim, not their poor little froggy toes? Yes, it’s true. It’s not a perfect solution, but toe-clipping is the least invasive way to get amphibian DNA. In some cases the toes grow back; salamanders are especially good at digit regeneration, and some frogs are, too, to a lesser extent. And even before the toes grow back, frogs are able to pretty much hop around and practice their normal routine without one of their toes. Some studies have shown that the more toes you clip from a frog, the less likely you will be to re-capture it later, suggesting that toe-clipping is correlated with mortality, but the effect is not great, and herpetologists certainly do re-capture lots of toe-clipped frogs. Pain, of course, is the other big issue. Yes, it probably hurts a bit, but the potential benefits of amphibian research outweigh the suffering of a few individual frogs, in my opinion at least. Still, while I’m out there creating little anuran Cletus Spucklers, Peter Pettigrews, and Mike Grunders, I will be sure to treat them with honor and respect, and thank them for their unwilling sacrifice to science.