Extinct “Devil Frog” Sported Spikes, Body Armor

The giant “devil frog” was even more terrifying than previously thought, a new study says.

Recent fossil analysis shows that the predatory amphibian, Beelzebufo ampinga, was smaller than first described, but had spiky flanges protruding from its skull and plate-like armor down its back. (Also see “7 Demonic Creatures: Thorny Devil, Satanic Gecko, More.”)

An illustration of a devil frog.
A  previous illustration of a devil frog compares the animal to a pencil and the largest known living Madagascan frog, Mantydactylus ampinga. Illustration by Luci Betti-Nash, courtesy Stony Brook University

Initially estimated to be 16 inches (40 centimeters) long, Beelzebufo was instead about 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) long, roughly the size of the modern African bullfrog, according to University College London paleontologist Susan Evans and colleagues.

freshwater species of the weekThe team, which first described the species in 2008, suspects it looked like today’s Amazon horned frog, often called the Pac-Man frog due to its wide mouth. The monster frog lived between 70 million and 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period in what’s now Africa.

Since their first discovery, the team found new and more complete fossils of the frog’s skull, vertebral column, and hind limb, which has given the amphibian an even more devilish makeover.

Not Bigger, but Badder

The new study reveals the devil frog had a short, wide head that was almost all mouth—a maw fitted with small, plate-like teeth. It also had massive spikes protruding from its skull and armored plates embedded in the skin of its back, almost like a turtle’s shell, according to the findings, published January 28 in the journal PLOS ONE. (Read about other battle-ready creatures.)

A photo of an amazon horned frog.
An Amazon horned frog in Guyana’s Iwokrama Rainforest Reserve. Photograph by Pete Oxford, Minden Pictures/Corbis

Like the American bullfrog, the researchers think Beelzebufo was an ambush predator, targeting any prey that would fit into its enormous mouth.

The purpose of the body armor isn’t clear, but Evans and her colleagues—including Stony Brook University’s David Krause, who has received funding from National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration—have some ideas. For instance, it could have served as protection against predators such as dinosaurs and crocodiles.

The researchers also note that Beelzebufo lived in an environment with drastic swings between wet and dry seasons, and that its armor may have allowed the animal to escape the sun by burrowing underground.

So Beelzebufo may not be the biggest among ancient amphibians, but it’s certainly the baddest.

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Meet the Author
Mary Bates is a freelance science writer living in Boston. She has a PhD in psychology from Brown University where she studied bat echolocation. You can visit her website at www.marybateswriter.com and follow her on Twitter at @mebwriter.