Comparative Cryo-SEM and AFM studies of hylid and rhacophorid tree frog toe pads


  • W.J.P.B. and S.N.G. initiated the project; W.J.P.B. was involved in all the investigative procedures and wrote the manuscript; M.B. was the cryo-SEM expert; H.P. was the AFM expert; S.N.G., helped with the data interpretation and provided advice and assistance at all stages of the work.


Cryo-scanning electron microscopy (cryo-SEM) and atomic force microscopy (AFM) offer new avenues for the study of the morphology of tree frog adhesive toe pads. Using these techniques, we compare toe pad microstructure in two distantly related species of tree frog, Litoria caerulea, White (Hylidae) and Rhacophorus prominanus, Smith (Rhacophoridae), in which the toe pads are considered to be convergent. AFM demonstrates the extraordinary similarity of both surface microstructures (largely hexagonal epithelial cells surrounded by deep channels) and nanostructures (an array of nanopillars, ca. 350 nm in diameter, all with a small dimple at the apex). The cryo-SEM studies examined the distribution of the fibrillar cytoskeleton within the different layers of the stratified toe pad epithelium, demonstrating that the cytoskeletal elements (keratin tonofilaments) that lie at an angle to the surface are relatively poorly developed in L. caerulea, clearly so in comparison to R. prominanus. Cryo-SEM also enabled the visualization of the fluid layer that is critical to a toe pad's adhesive function. This was achieved by examination of the frozen fluid residues left behind after removal of a toe within the cryo-SEM's experimental chamber. Such ‘toeprints’ demonstrated the presence of a wedge of fluid surrounding each toe pad, as well as fluid filling the channels that surround each epithelial cell. Cryo-SEM was used to examine epithelial cell shape. In a sample of 582 cells, 59.5% were hexagonal, the remainder being mainly pentagonal (23.1%) or heptagonal (16.1%). The distribution of differently-shaped cells was not random, but was not associated with either pad curvature or the distribution of mucous pores that provide fluid for the frogs' wet adhesion mechanism. Our main finding, the great similarity of toe pad structure in these two species, has important implications for biomimetics, for such convergent evolution suggests a good starting point for attempts to develop adhesives that will function in wet conditions. J. Morphol. 274:1384–1396, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.