200 years of amphibian water economy: from Robert Townson to the present

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1997 May;72(2):153-237. doi: 10.1017/s0006323196004963.


In the 1790s, Robert Townson established the main features of the water economy of terrestrial amphibians: rapid evaporative water loss in dry surroundings, 'drinking' by absorption of water through the abdominal skin pressed against moist substrates, and use of the urinary bladder as a reservoir from which water is reabsorbed on land. This knowledge was of little interest to the establishment in the first half of the nineteenth century of experimental physiology as a basic medical discipline, when frogs became models in the elucidation of general physiological processes. Townson's pioneer contributions to amphibian physiology were forgotten for 200 years (Jørgensen 1994b). During (1901) and particularly Overton (1904) restored knowledge about amphibian water economy to the level reached by Townson, but the papers had little impact on the young science of animal physiology because they primarily aimed at elucidating the transport of fluids across membranes. Frog skin remained a model preparation in such studies throughout the century. With the establishment of terrestrial ecology early in the century, the relations of animals, including amphibians, to water became a central theme. Concurrently with comparative studies of amphibian water economy in an ecological setting, the subject proceeded as an aspect of animal osmoregulation. Adolph (1920-1930) and Rey (1937a) established the highly dynamic nature of water balance in amphibians in water and on land. Their observations indicated functional links between environment, skin and kidneys, the nature of which remained to be explored. Thorson & Svihla (1943) reopened the ecological approach in a comparative study of the relations between amphibian habitat and tolerance of dehydration. By mid-century, the central themes of amphibian adaptations to terrestrial modes of life were re-established, except for the function of the bladder as a water-depot. During the following decades, a rich literature appeared, particularly focusing on adaptations of amphibians to arid environments. Thus, in the 1970s, it was found that 'waterproofing' of the highly permeable skins by means of skin secretions had evolved independently in several families of tropical arboreal frogs, and that a number of amphibians that aestivate whilst burrowed in dry soil could reduce evaporation by forming cocoons from shed strata cornea. In 1950-1970 the role of bladder urine as a water depot in terrestrial amphibians was recognized: this did not change the established view of water balance in terrestrial amphibians as alternating between dehydration on land and rehydration in response to the deficit in body water. Amphibians may, however, maintain normal water balance whether the ambient medium is water or air by means of little understood integrated mechanisms in control of cutaneous drinking behaviour, water permeability of the skin and bladder wall, and urine production.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amphibians / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Biological Transport
  • Permeability
  • Skin / metabolism*
  • Skin Absorption
  • Urinary Bladder / physiology
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance*