MYSTERIES WILL NEVER BE SOLVED
August 14, 2011
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,
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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."
and young people alike stared in amazement, their mouths agape. "You
just ate my only specimen!" exclaimed the boy.
no one could confirm the identity anyway," retorted Duke. "Go
catch another one if they're really there."
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.
may have done odder things, but Duke Campbell's performance at least qualifies
for dishonorable mention.
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