By Seth Ausubel
The air was chill and the skies leaden as our party slipped quietly through the thick woodland underbrush. We soon reached a densely overgrown pond. The still dark waters roiled as dozens of unseen creatures fled the pond’s edge at our approach.
An eerie calm beset the pond as we began a silent vigil. Soon the chorus of alien clucks that had guided us toward our destination resumed. Then, a ripple…a vague form in the murky waters… a pair of eyes. There it was — the Richmond Ribbiter!
O.K., so the part I left out is that the pond is a mere twenty-five feet from the edge of a busy road, next to a gun club and stone mason yard in Staten Island, a.k.a. Richmond County, one of New York City’s five boroughs. What is truly remarkable is that our quarry was a newly discovered species of leopard frog.
I was there that March morning of 2012 with my friends and fellow naturalists, Dave Eib, Mike Shanley and Seth Wollney, all native Staten Islanders.
You’re probably incredulous that a new species of frog has been discovered in New York City. It is an extremely rare occasion when any new vertebrate species is discovered in a major population center. But, in fact, while the existence of these frogs has been known, it was only recently shown that they are genetically distinct from the other leopard frog species in the region – the Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), and the Southern Leopard Frog (Rana utricularia). The new frog has not yet been described in scientific literature, nor has it even been named. So for now I’m dubbing it…well, you know already.
While the Richmond Ribbiter looks very much like the other leopard frogs, its calls are quite distinct – a single “cluck” unlike the “chuckle” of the Southern Leopard Frog, and even less like the “snore” of the Northern Leopard Frog. Seth Wollney has posted video and audio on his blog. The calls of the other species can be found by following the links above.
Way back in 1936, Carl Kauffeld, the renowned herpetologist and Curator of the Staten Island Zoo, wrote that he thought there may be a third species of leopard frog in New York City. But he never investigated further and the frog remained shrouded in obscurity. Wollney, whose local knowledge is unparalleled, says he and others noticed the presence of an oddly singing frog a few years ago. But it was the studies of Jeremy A. Feinberg, a doctoral candidate in ecology and evolution at Rutgers University that identified the frog as a new species.
The range of the Richmond Ribbiter is still being investigated, but it is likely that only a small fraction of its former range still supports the frogs. This shows the importance of habitat conservation, even in urban areas.
So, yes, there are wilds in New York City, and a unique frog. Who knows what discoveries remain?
About the author: Seth Ausubel is Acting Chief of EPA Region 2’s Watershed Management Branch, and an avid birder and naturalist