by Whit Gibbons

August 14, 2011

Roy McDiarmid at the Smithsonian, one of the best known amphibian experts in the world, has solved many ecological puzzles over the years. He recently told me a story in which the behavior of a scientist constituted the puzzle, and as that scientist is now dead, the mystery is likely to remain just that, a mystery.

Roy and several other eminent frog ecologists were at a scientific meeting in Tampa. One evening they went to a private room in a restaurant to visit and have a few beers. While they were socializing, a young couple, probably college students, came into the room and stood at the end of the table. Roy walked over, introduced himself, and asked if they were looking for anyone in particular or if he could help them.

The boy said he knew that the best herpetologists in Florida were in the room and he wanted to ask them a question. Roy shushed up the group long enough to hear the boy's question: had any of them caught a Pine Barrens tree frog from a particular part of the Florida panhandle? The group murmured that the frog was rare throughout its geographic range and that no records existed for the area the boy mentioned.

The species was among the rarest of U.S. frogs, and in the Southeast it was known primarily from a few scattered localities in the Carolinas and Alabama. The frog was listed as threatened on the federal endangered species list. The boy said he believed a population of Pine Barrens treefrogs occurred in the Florida location he had mentioned. One of the herpetologists said, "Well, go back and catch one so we can confirm what it is."

"I think I already have," the boy replied, pulling a jar from his coat pocket. Inside the jar was a small frog. Such a finding would have been notable enough to warrant publication in a professional journal and a report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The group became silent, and the jar was passed like a sacred object around the room.

Pine Barrens treefrogs are distinctive as adults but as juveniles are difficult to distinguish from some of the common treefrogs. Each of the experts took the little creature out, held it up solemnly for a closer look, mumbled something about its being a juvenile and therefore difficult to identify, and passed it on to the next person at the table.

The identity was uncertain. No one would declare what species it was, but no one ruled out its being a Pine Barrens treefrog. The group was baffled. If it was indeed the rare species, the find would be momentous. Finally, the frog had made its way around the table to Duke Campbell, who was a Florida frog expert. Duke looked at the jar, opened it up, and said, "We need to conduct the frog taste test to know for sure which species it is."

Roy said he and the other amphibian experts all stared at Duke. Everyone looked puzzled. What was he talking about? Then came the truly bizarre behavior. Without saying another word, Duke Campbell popped the frog in his mouth, gave a big gulp as he swallowed it, and said, "Yep. Tastes like a Pine Barrens treefrog."

Frog ecologists and young people alike stared in amazement, their mouths agape. "You just ate my only specimen!" exclaimed the boy.

"Well, no one could confirm the identity anyway," retorted Duke. "Go catch another one if they're really there."

The two students left, despondent and empty-handed (well, they got to take the jar). Duke died several years later without ever giving an explanation for his frog-eating feat. Pine Barrens treefrogs were ultimately confirmed to be present in the Florida panhandle, just as the student reported. Everyone who was at the table that night is convinced that Duke Campbell ate the first specimen to be found there.

Herpetologists may have done odder things, but Duke Campbell's performance at least qualifies for dishonorable mention.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)