A new species of frog discovered on Staten Island just might have been named in honor of its New Yorker status.
The Rana kauffeldi, or Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog, was given its own name and a unique description by biologists in the scientific journal Plos One last week. But the journey to its official name didn’t happen overnight.
The frog was first noticed six years ago on Staten Island by Rutgers scientist Jeremy Feinberg, who became interested in its distinct mating call and decided to study it further.
“Before this, there were three known species of frogs in the area,” says Feinberg’s colleague Bradley Shaffer, a professor at UCLA. The two have studied the species together. “We were looking at these peculiar frogs Jeremy had gotten and listened to. The question was, ‘Which one are they?’ ”
But when the frog’s genetic makeup was tested at the lab, it didn’t jibe with any of the commonly recognized species in the area. By 2012, the scientists still hadn’t found a match. “Based on the genetic data, we realized, it looks like there’s a new species here,” Shaffer says.
But in order to give the guy his own name, they had to be sure nobody else had found the frog first.
That led to a lengthy process not only of observing and cataloging the frog’s features and behaviors, but also combing through records to find out whether the species had been discovered previously.
“It’s actually a pretty grueling process,” says Feinberg. “You’re not looking at these names out there but these old rejected names…that might completely fit [our frog] like a puzzle piece. In some cases I was literally using photocopies of books in the 1750s…to make sure we were OK.”
Over the past 250 years in the Northeast, as many as five different species names for leopard frogs have been floated, according to one of the scientific papers. For a while, scientists thought there were two species of leopard frog in the area. Later, some insisted there was only one.
“There’s been a long history of confusion about names that are applied to frogs in the New York area,” says Shaffer. “A lot of times, over a hundred years, the specimen is lost — or it’s in such lousy shape that you can’t tell whether the dead, shriveled frog is the same frog as what you’re looking at.”
After talking with other frog specialists, Shaffer says, “given how confusing it’s all been with this group of frogs, rather than kind of guessing whether it might be one of those, we thought it would be more responsible to give it a description and start on a new name.”
Potential cognomens came rolling in.
One (sort of) suggestion? Rana yankee — as in, Yankee Stadium.
“That was a joke,” says Feinberg. “When we first discovered this frog [in 2012], we had a paper that had more response than this one. The New York Times did a big story that got tons of pickup. And one thing got lost in translation.”
Feinberg says the scientists were asked about the range of the frog’s location. At the time, they thought that it was spread out from western Connecticut to southern New Jersey, so they pointed to Yankee Stadium as the region’s center point. After that, Feinberg says, the the team started to talk about making the animal’s common name the “Yankee Leopard Frog.”
Months later, they were reading a report in European media that said a new species of frog had been found — one that was discovered “in Yankee Stadium.”
Feinberg chuckles. “We were laughing our asses off,” he remembers. “We thought, ‘That’s crazy!’ ”
Then the team began to ask: Why not own it? The Yankee idea started getting more traction.
“We thought that would be so cool, it would represent New York with such pride,” says Feinberg. Excitement bubbled about whether the team and local athletes would adopt the frog as their own — “If we named it that, they would look weird if they didn’t.
“We were kind of excited,” says Feinberg. “The frog would be a conservation icon.”
One co-author even sent out a joke email, he remembers, suggesting to forget about the common name and put the Yankee tribute in the frog’s scientific Latin name.
Then the researchers learned that the frog lived as far away as Virginia and North Carolina. “I think the second it crossed the Mason-Dixon line, we realized it’s not going to work anymore,” said Feinberg. Their Yankee dreams dashed, the frog was ultimately called the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog.
But the amphibian does still represent a little bit of hometown pride. Scientists ultimately used the Latin name to honor Carl Kauffeld, a Staten Island scientist whom Schaffer calls “a bit of an unsung hero.”
Kauffeld, who died in 1974, was best known for his work popularizing science with the masses: He was a popular science writer and the director of the Staten Island Zoo. “As a kid raised in Connecticut, I read his books because I was always into reptiles and amphibians,” remembers Shaffer. “But he also was a good scientist.”
Kauffeld wrote a proposal in 1937 — when most scientists thought there were only two species of leopard frog on Staten Island — suggesting that there might be a third. That species was likely the same frog that Feinberg and his colleagues later discovered. Kauffeld was smacked down by major scientific figures at the time, who were actually only recognizing one such species.
“He tried to make things move forward,” says Feinberg, “and he actually created retrograde movement. I was thinking about which naturalist had the strongest impression on me…I really wanted to honor somebody. But once I read the Kauffeld paper, it was so clearly, beyond all others, the most appropriate.”
But with the exception of biologists like Feinberg and Shaffer, few have ever known who Kauffeld was. Until now, perhaps.
So is the UCLA professor willing to admit New York’s superiority to Los Angeles now that our city can claim the new amphibian?
“Well, I believe to do that we’d have to tally up all the new species of vertebrates discovered in each city in the last 30 years, and I believe L.A. would win,” Shaffer says. “I’ll go toe to toe with anybody on that.”