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Alaska frogs reach record lows in extreme temperature survival

Freezing and thawing might not be good for the average steak, but it seems to help wood frogs each fall as they prepare to survive Alaska's winter cold.

"Alaska wood frogs spend more time freezing and thawing outside than a steak does in your freezer and the frog comes back to life in the spring in better shape than the steak," said Don Larson, University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student and lead author on a recent paper demonstrating that freeze tolerance in Alaska wood frogs is more extreme than previously thought.

Although wood frogs are well-studied freeze-tolerant amphibians, Larson's research is believed to be the first to examine the frogs under natural conditions.

In subarctic Interior Alaska, wood frogs overwinter in the ground covered by duff and leaf litter, creating a hibernacula, where temperatures can remain below freezing for more than six months with minimum temperatures of minus four (minus 20 Celsius).

Tracking wood frogs to their natural hibernacula, and using a fenced hibernacula in the Biological Reserve north of the UAF campus, Larson and co-author Brian Barnes, director of the UAF Institute of Arctic Biology and an expert in cold-climate physiology, wanted to know how cold and how long Alaska's wood frogs could survive in their natural habitat.

"Imagine what happens when you suck on a freeze pop," said Larson. "After you've sucked out all the sweet stuff, you're left with just ice. That's what happens to cells when they freeze. As ice formation pulls the water out of cells, the cells desiccate or dry out and eventually die."

Frogs prevent this freeze-pop effect by packing their cells with glucose (a kind of sugar) that reduces drying and stabilizes cells, a process scientists call cryoprotection.

"Concentrating sugar inside the cell helps balance the concentration of salts outside the cell that occurs as ice forms," said Barnes. "Less water leaves the cell than if su

Contact: Marie Thoms
University of Alaska Fairbanks

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