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A Young Scientist Makes a Remarkable Discovery in New York City

A Rutgers University graduate student has discovered a new species of frog, only the second to be identified in the US and Canada since the late-1980s.

by Agata Blaszczak-Boxe
Oct 31 2014, 3:15pm

Photo by Brian Curry/Rutgers University

On a rainy night in 2008, Rutgers University graduate student Jeremy Feinberg was conducting research in an area of wetlands along the coast of Staten Island. Feinberg was in search of mating leopard frogs - the subject of his graduate studies. While on the lookout for copulating amphibians he heard a very weird call.

Different types of frogs have distinctive voices and Feinberg suspected that perhaps he had stumbled upon a new species - an exhilarating prospect for a young scientist.

"I felt a combination of really charged excitement, tempered by the feeling of 'What did I get myself into,'" he told VICE News.

Indeed, Feinberg did identify a new species of frog and after years of scientific evaluation of the little amphibian, he and a team of seven other researchers published their findings on Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

The long journey from wetlands to publication in a scientific journal required several steps to definitively show the distinctiveness of the new critter.

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Feinberg first enlisted Catherine Newman, a biologist at Louisiana State University, to conduct genetic tests on the frog. Newman took tissue samples from the amphibian's toes, which revealed that the Feinberg's frog was genetically distinct from others.

To bolster his case of an authentic discovery, Feinberg then teamed up with a group of scientists to study the frog's call. Using a method called bioacoustics, the team recorded the frog and compared it with other specimens. The team found that the frog's acoustic signature, like its genetic material, differed from other frog relatives.

"I think my mouth probably dropped," Feinberg told VICE News, recalling the test results. "It was probably one of the most surreal days in my life."

Rana kauffeldi, commonly referred to as the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog. Photo by Brian Curry/Rutgers University

Feinberg was not the first to argue that the frog was a distinct species, though.

In 1937, another scientist, named Carl Kauffeld made a claim that, in addition to the Northern and Southern leopard frogs, there might be another related species inhabiting the New York and New Jersey area.

Kauffeld was no novice wildlife enthusiast. He was a renowned expert on amphibians, was the director of the Staten Island Zoo, and wrote several books about amphibians and reptiles.

Kauffeld published a paper in the journal Herpetologica about his observation of the potentially new species, but he did not actually describe it or present evidence of its uniqueness.

"Kauffeld's paper fell into obscurity because there was a [scientific] movement in 1930s and early-1940s to classify lots of different species as a single species," Feinberg told VICE News.

"We know now that this way of thinking was wrong and he was right," Feinberg added.

To honor Kauffeld's work, Feinberg and his team named the new species Rana kauffeldi, commonly referred to as the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog.

"It is very likely that this week a new frog species was discovered somewhere on the planet, but it is also very likely that it was discovered in a rainforest or deep in a remote area," Feinberg told VICE News.

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"If you look at that region [the U.S. and Canada], this is not a common thing," Feinberg said. "There have only been this and one other new frog discovered from 1987 onwards."

"If there is a single lesson to take from this study,"  co-author Brad Shaffer of UCLA said, "it's that those who love nature and want to conserve it need to shut down their computers, get outside and study the plants and animals in their own backyards."

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter: @AgataBoxe