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Voices of the Night: Frogs and Toads of the Pinelands

Voices of the Night participant holds small frog

June 29, 2012

Lora Burns is an event planner with a love of all things science. She is currently an adult programs intern at the Academy, assisting with the institution’s Adult Field Studies program and Mega-Bad Movie Nights. Here, Lora recaps her outing at the “Voices of the Night” field study in the New Jersey Pinelands.

On the evening of May 18, 2012, 15 science enthusiasts ventured out into the New Jersey Pinelands for an evening of exploration with naturalist Ned Gilmore, collection manager of herpetology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. The night’s group included a mix of parents and their adult children, teachers, and even a couple on their first date! This event, called “Voices of the Night,” was part of the Academy’s Adult Field Studies program, which allows men and women to participate directly in the institution’s current research by engaging in on-site study. “Voices of the Night” focused on the toads and frogs of the Pinelands and their distinct mating calls.

The trip started with a quick stop at Apple Pie Hill, the highest point of the central Pinelands. At Apple Pie Hill, we climbed the fire lookout tower for a study of the landscape and a beautiful sunset view of the pines. Amid a sea of trees, we could spot the Philadelphia skyline and far-off lights of Atlantic City in the distance.

The group ventured on, eagerly overturning rocks and logs in search of lizards, snakes, and salamanders.  Under Gilmore’s guidance, we walked down sandy roads and into the wood until we finally reached the Pinelands pond at Pine Crest, the place that boasted all the action.

We found several southern leopard frogs resting in the shallow water of the pond, and Gilmore showed us how to identify the sex. He called across the pond and heard responses from other leopard frogs as well as green frogs and carpenter frogs. Several times Gilmore called to the Pine Barrens treefrog, but we never heard its reply; the weather may have been a few degrees too cold, Gilmore said, as he had heard the treefrog’s call throughout the trees during the previous warmer weekend.

We set out in search of frogs but quickly learned that the Pinelands is teeming with other life! We spotted hundreds of wolf spiders on the floor of the forest. We saw dragonflies that had just molted next to their freshly shed exoskeletons. We were able to identify constellations in the sky, and when a flashlight was shone across the pond, we could see bats flying above the water. Among the calls of the frogs, we also heard the call of a Whip-poor-will bird. Our last discovery of the night was a Fowler’s toad.

In the darkness, Gilmore reviewed all the frog and toad species we had identified that evening, and he spoke of the area’s importance. “Southern New Jersey is home to so many frog species,” Gilmore remarked. “I would say that there has even been an increase in frogs lately. The status of the Pine Barrens treefrog was lowered from endangered to threatened, and last year, a population of American green treefrogs was discovered in New Jersey, where the species hadn’t been documented before.”

As frog numbers have decreased worldwide in recent years, the situation in South Jersey is unique. The Pinelands in particular represents a special place of stasis for many frog and toad species. When the evening had officially ended, we left with a greater appreciation for the area and its many diverse creatures, and we realized that the conservation of this natural habitat is crucial to preserving its voices of the night.

The Academy’s next adults-only excursion in the Pine Barrens will be “Buggin’ in the Dark,” an evening event during which participants will focus on capturing the area’s various insects. The July 20 trip will be led by Entomology Curator Greg Cowper and live invertebrate specialist Karen Verderame. Learn more about upcoming adult classes and field studies to in the Pine Barrens, the Big Brook Preserve, and other New Jersey and Philadelphia locations. Call 215-299-1060 for more information and to register for upcoming programs.