Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD.

The Biomimicry Manual: What Can the Crucifix Toad Teach Us About Adhesives?

biomimicry, bioinspired design, green materials, sustainable glue, crucifix toad, holy cross frog, desert adaptations

Image © paulhypnos

This colorful toad may be as tiny as a quarter, but he has got some big tricks up his sleeve. The Crucifix Toad, also known as the Holy Cross Frog, (Notaden bennettii), like all tadpoles, needs water. Unfortunately, this poor fellow lives deep in the Australian desert, where it might not rain for months, if not years. His small stature doesn’t help his cause either, and this little guy is a much desired snack for predators of all sizes. So, how does he cope in the face of constant uncertainty? Keep reading to learn more about this crafty little creature, and find out how his solutions can be applied to current human problems.


biomimicry, bioinspired design, green materials, sustainable glue, crucifix toad, holy cross frog, desert adaptations

During dry spells, the Crucifix Frog goes underground, cocooned in baked mud, until the rains come again. Once this happens, the wet, soft ground releases the Crucifix Frog from his princess slumber. The sleeping beauty emerges, and begins voraciously inhaling ants, termites, and any other small invertebrate unlucky enough to saunter by.

But this time of year is not just a feeding frenzy for the frog. Other predators are on the prowl too, and a juicy frog is a perfect meal for a hungry snake or bird. Like many poisonous or foul-tasting creatures, the Crucifix Frog has evolved a dramatic warning display. A striking cross-shaped pattern of black and red spots contrasts boldly against a bright chartreuse skin, telling curious diners to back off.

biomimicry, bioinspired design, green materials, sustainable glue, crucifix toad, holy cross frog, desert adaptations

When provoked, the frog shows why it’s wise to pay attention. A sticky goo exudes from its skin, hardening in seconds. With five times the tensile strength of current protein-based surgical adhesives, this glue is nothing short of remarkable. It is non-toxic, works great in water, and forms a highly elastic, porous mesh.

It also seals the mouthparts of its predators shut. And if ants attack the marauding frog, they stick to its back like a mouse in a glue-trap. Then, with the annoyance subdued, the frog sheds its skin and eats it for a leisurely snack. Glue, ants, and all.

Next, its mating time. Since water is such a flash-in-the-pan commodity in this parched place, the frogs hop to it. The male floats, spread-eagled, in any short-lived puddle he can find, hooting madly like an owl to attract the female of his dreams. Once she arrives, he literally glues himself to her. ‘Don’t let her get away’ takes on a whole new meaning. Once the couple loses that loving feeling, she quickly lays her eggs. Before long, the tadpoles hatch and grow as quickly as possible before the puddles dry up. The whole sordid affair is over in six weeks.

What can human designers learn from this extreme creature? Can the Crucifix Toad teach us something useful? Non-toxic, porous glues with high tensile strength that adhere in water? That could have important medical uses, maybe for surgeries. Could there be water conservation applications? What else can you think of? When you go hunting for smart, stylish, sustainable design solutions, it pays to ask “How would nature do it?” Our fellow non-human earthlings have spent millions of years perfecting their craft. They know what they’re doing! Other creatures face the same kinds of problems we have. Their answers, tested by millions of years of R&D, are energy-efficient, non-toxic, and they don’t need landfill. Share your ideas with us below.

+ The Biomimicry Manual 

An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.

Images via Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted

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2 Comments

  1. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, ... August 19, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    Thanks Matt!

  2. Matthew Thies August 16, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Holy Frog! Great article, Tamsin.

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