A newly described tree frog species dubbed Litoria pinocchio bears a striking resemblance to the fairytale puppet protagonist Pinocchio.
As researchers led by Paul Oliver, a herpetologist at Australia’s Queensland Museum and Griffith University, report in the journal Zootaxa, male members of the New Guinea species have a protruding nose on par with that of the wooden marionette-turned-real boy. But whereas Pinocchio’s nose grew and shrank in accordance with whether he was lying or telling the truth, the exact mechanics of the amphibian’s shapeshifting schnozz—which Oliver tells National Geographic alternately “sticks out quite straight [or] droops downward”—remain unclear.
Still, Oliver notes, “They are pretty elaborate structures that must have some purpose.”
According to National Geographic, Oliver first happened upon the unusual species during a 2008 field expedition to Indonesia’s Foja Mountains. The herpetologist and his colleagues were seeking shelter from the rain when they spotted the frog perched atop a bag of rice. Aside from a roughly 2.5-millimeter-long fleshy spike jutting out from its face, the green, brown and yellow specimen looked much like other tree frogs found in the region.
Although researchers have known about L. pinocchio’s existence since 2008, the Zootaxa study marks the first time the species has been formally described. Previously, the long-nosed amphibian was known colloquially as the “Pinocchio frog.”
“It’s pretty obvious how we came up with the name Litoria pinocchio,” Oliver says in a Griffith University press release. “It refers to the distinctive spike between the frog’s nostrils.”
The newly named species is one of several Litoria tree frogs with a protruding nose. As Charles Q. Choi writes for Live Science, the rod-like structure points upward when the male is vocalizing but “deflates and points downward” when he is inactive. It’s possible the shift occurs in tandem with attempts to attract females, Oliver says to National Geographic, but previous research on “breeding choruses of spike-nose frogs” has shown no “pattern in the lengths of spikes on the males the females” choose for mating.
A more likely explanation is that the Pinocchio-esque facial feature helps frogs differentiate between the diverse species native to the New Guinean forests. To date, scientists have described more than 450 such species—but this figure likely represents just a fraction of the total living on New Guinea, which is home to more frog species than any other island on Earth.
Speaking with Chinese news agency Xinhau, Oliver explains that many species living on the Indonesian island have only been identified within the last 10 to 20 years.
He adds, “The more you go back, the more you get to new areas, [and] the more you find new species.”
L. pinocchio is one of three tree frog species newly catalogued by Oliver and his team. In a separate Zootaxa article, the scientists describe Litoria pterodactyla, a bright green frog that uses its “extensive violet finger webbing” to parachute out of trees, and Litoria vivissimia, a similarly long-nosed species whose Latin name translates to “cheeky monkey.”
“We have probably walked past dozens of them but have only ever seen one,” Oliver concludes in the statement. “We think they are probably up there in treetops laughing at us.”