What makes bullfrogs capable of jumping such huge distances?S

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest recorded bullfrog jump — achieved by "Rosie the Ribeter" — is at least 7.15 feet (2.18 meters). But the farthest jump scientists have ever recorded in the lab is only 4.2 feet (1.29 m). So what gives?

Though the three-foot difference may seem trivial, the disparity between Guinness and the scientific literature really does matter. If bullfrogs only jump four feet, it suggests they rely purely on muscle power. But if they can hop a whopping seven feet, they must also be using stretchy tendons to give themselves that extra oomph. Other frogs are known to fuel their jumps with tendon power, but scientists had long thought bullfrogs lost this ability, hypothesizing that the amphibians traded jumping power for improved swimming.

To get to the bottom of the mystery, researchers attended the Calaveras County Fair near San Francisco to watch the annual Jumping Frog Jubilee. Rosie the Ribeter became a record-setter at this very fair over 100 years ago.

The scientists recorded 3,124 bullfrogs jumps over the course of the festivities. Back in the lab, they pored over the 20 hours of high-definition video they took and measured the length of each and every bullfrog jump. Amazingly, 58% of the jumps surpassed the lab record of 4.2 feet. One frog even beat out Rosie after leaping 7.2 feet (2.2 m) in a single bound. Overall, the frogs motivated by professionals, who catch and prescreen their frogs for jumping ability each year, outjumped the frogs rented by amateurs at the fair.

The results suggest that bullfrogs really do utilize their stretchy tendons, which act as a kind of bow and arrow. Scientists may have gotten only short jumps in the past simply because they don't know how to properly motivate their amphibians. LiveScience explains:

Frogs are caught just prior to the competition, most in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and released soon after, suggesting there's nothing special about the animals themselves, [study researcher Thomas Roberts] said. More likely, he said, generations of "frog jockeys" have refined and passed down the best motivational techniques to coax maximum leaps from their amphibious competitors.

Among the apparent tricks were keeping frogs in a warm environment in order to better prepare the muscles to fire. Professional frog jockeys also followed a pattern of rubbing their frogs' legs, dropping them onto the starting pad from a short height and then lunging at the frog headfirst to trigger its flight…

Read more over at LiveScience and ScienceNOW. Or check out the study in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Top image via Craig Stanfill/Flickr.