Field guide to malformations of frogs and toads: with radiographic interpretations

Biological Science Report 2000-0005




In 1995, students found numerous malformed frogs on a field trip to a Minnesota pond. Since that time, reports of malformed frogs have increased dramatically. Malformed frogs have now been reported in 44 states in 38 species of frogs, and 19 species of toads. Estimates as high as 60% of the newly metamorphosed frog populations have had malformations at some ponds (NARCAM, ’99). The wide geographic distribution of malformed frogs and the variety of malformations are a concern to resource managers, research scientists and public health officials. The potential for malformations to serve as a signal of ecosystem disruption, and the affect this potential disruption might have on other organisms that share those ecosystems, has not been resolved. Malformations represent an error that occurred early in development. The event that caused the developmental error is temporally distant from the malformation we see in the fully developed animal. Knowledge of normal developmental principles is necessary to design thoughtful investigations that will define the events involved in abnormal development in wild frog populations.

Development begins at the time an egg is fertilized and progresses by chemical communication between cells and cell layers. This communication is programmed through gene expression. Malformations represent primary errors in development, errors in chemical communication or translation of genetic information. Deformations arise later in development and usually result from the influence of mechanical factors (such as amputation) that alter shape or anatomy of a structure that has developed normally. The occurrence and the type of malformations are influenced by the type of error or insult as well as the timing of the error (the developmental stage at which the error occurred). The appearance of the malformation can therefore provide clues that suggest when the error may have occurred. If the malformation is an incomplete organ, such as an incomplete limb, the factor or insult acted during a susceptible period prior to organ completion. Although defining the anatomy of the malformed metamorphosed frog can give us an idea of the approximate window during which the developmental insult was initiated, and might even suggest the type of insult that may have occurred, the morphology of the malformation does not define the cause. To define causes and mechanisms of frog malformations we need to use well designed investigations that are different from traditional tests used in acute toxicity or disease pathogenicity studies. When investigating malformations in metamorphosed frogs, we are looking at the affect of exposure to an agent that occurred early in tadpole development. Therefore investigations to determine causes of malformations need to look at agents that are present in the tadpoles or their environments at these early developmental times. Laboratory experiments need to expose embryos and tadpoles to suspect agents at appropriate developmental stages and look at acute results, such as toxicity and death, as well as following the developmental process to completion to determine the impact of the agent on the developing tadpole and the fully developed frog. This means holding animals past metamorphic climax to assure that the anatomy and physiology of the adult have developed normally.

As we look at field collections of abnormal frogs, we need to keep in mind that these collections reflect survivors only. We are looking at malformations that were not fatal to tadpoles. We cannot assume that because we do not collect other malformations, they did not exist. More work needs to be done on the developing tadpole, in the field and in the laboratory, to better elucidate the range, frequency, character and causes of anuran malformations.

Suggested Citation

Meteyer, C.U., 2000, Field guide to malformations of frogs and toads: with radiographic interpretations: U.S. Geological Survey BSR 2000-0005, 20 p.,

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Glossary
  • Anatomy and terminology describing the normal frog limb
  • General Classification System for Limb Malformations
  • Abnormalities, Not Malformations
  • References
  • Key to Frog and Toad Malformations

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Federal Government Series
Field guide to malformations of frogs and toads: with radiographic interpretations
Series title:
Biological Science Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
National Wildlife Health Center
16 p.