|Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog - NJFWS photo|
For Division of Fish and Wildlife Endangered and Nongame Species Program zoologist Brian Zarate, having a hand in helping to “discover” a new frog species in a state as populated and urbanized as New Jersey is both a “very cool” and “humbling” experience.
“It’s kind of humbling, especially as a biologist, to realize that in a place like New Jersey, there’s an opportunity to learn new things,” Zarate said. “This discovery teaches us not to give up on certain habitats that people might dismiss.”
As part of a Rutgers University research project, the frog, barely the length of one’s thumb, has made national news with the publication of a study confirming its existence on Staten Island not far from the Statue of Liberty – going about its business unnoticed.
But Zarate and Division of Fish and Wildlife have been quietly contributing to the Rutgers Research for several years and, using a federal State Wildlife Grant matched by state funds, the Endangered and Nongame Species Program is currently working on a two-year-project to further refine the species’ habitat range in New Jersey.
“New Jersey has been a leader in protecting valuable wetlands resources,” said David Jenkins, Chief of the Endangered and Nongame Species Program. “These efforts have included wetlands in urban and suburban areas that may not, on first blush, appear to be of great value to wildlife. This discovery of this frog, literally in our backyard shows that New Jersey’s swamps and marshes, even those in urban and suburban landscapes, still have tremendous value for our native wildlife and we shouldn’t discount their value.”
Zarate’s connection to the Atlantic Coast leopard frog actually goes back to 2003, when he and a group of others working with protection of reptiles and amphibians heard an unfamiliar frog call at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Morris County. The call is now frequently described as a series of chucks and occasional groans.
At the time, Zarate was a state contract biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. The group captured the frog and took some photos. It wasn’t the southern leopard frog, a species found widely in the Pine Barrens, so they concluded it was a northern leopard frog that someone, perhaps a high school biology teacher, had released into the wild.
Four years later, the group got the idea to return to Great Swamp to confirm whether the strange frog was still there, and perhaps if it was in other parts of the property. Not only was it where they first found it, but in several other wetlands as well.
A few months later, Zarate took a job with the Endangered and Nongame Species Program. A YouTube video of the frog that Zarate posted in 2007 connected him with Jeremy Feinberg, a doctoral student at the Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, who was working in the New York area to track down other reports of an unfamiliar frog call.
“Our role in the early stages was to help Feinberg’s group and explore what was going on in New Jersey,” Zarate said.
Using the state’s database of frog records and information gleaned from a wide range of professional experts, amateur frog aficionados, museum records, and the Internet, the frog was confirmed to exist in a wide range of habitats, virtually anywhere researchers went to confirm its call, actually the mating song of the male of the species.
Next spring, biologists and volunteers with the Endangered and Nongame Species Program will fan out to wetlands across the state, searching for more evidence of the Atlantic Coast leopard frog and collecting data on its habitat preferences. In addition, museum records indicate that a third leopard frog, the northern leopard frog, did, in fact, naturally occur in the northern part of the state as recent as the 1930s. Surveys will specifically target this frog at its past locations in hopes of finding them still hanging on.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” Zarate said. “The Atlantic Coast leopard frog is a really interesting species that somehow manages to hang on even in urban environments. It’s important we learn as much as we can about New Jersey’s wildlife and this discovery highlights the value in protecting our natural resources.”
- Leopard frogs in New Jersey field guide -http://www.njfishandwildlife.com/ensp/pdf/leopardfrog_guide.pdf
- Pictures, video (including audio of the frog’s mating call) -http://www.njfishandwildlife.com/ensp/leopardfrog.htm
- Rutgers University news release and a link to a scientific journal article on the Atlantic Coast leopard frog
- Journal article on the Atlantic Coast leopard frog