As the Academy celebrates biodiversity — the remarkable, beautiful tapestry of life on Earth — this year, we are delving into some of the fascinating locations our scientists have visited in the region and across the globe to study and help protect our planet’s phenomenally diverse and incredible species.
The Pine Barrens
Ron Smith, an instructor with Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, and his group of volunteer community scientists were lured deep in into the swampy thicket of Wharton State Forest in the New Jersey Pine Barrens on the search for biological treasure.
Their first clue was the sound of nasal quonking. They tied a yellow bandana high up on a tree branch to mark the location of where they would leave the trail and enter the dense vegetation toward a pond they could not yet see. Stealth was not their style; the noise of a few large human mammals negotiating the undergrowth of inkberry and sweet pepperbush was enough to quiet every creature in the wet woods. And the increasing presence of sphagnum moss on the forest floor had every footfall puddle water around their feet as they squished forward.
Making slow progress, Smith and his crew approached the sounds of this breeding chorus, the sole reason for their visit. Despite having explored habitats just like this one for more than three decades, Smith was still exhilarated. The concert continued, close enough that a glimpse might be possible. But it would not be that simple; the group would need some luck spotting it.
Entering the pond area carefully, trying to minimize splashing, they fanned out to take up stations at promising clumps of vegetation. A distant rumble of early summer thunder caught their attention. The concert started back in with gusto and their excitement matched the crescendo. Finally, with a push of a button on their lamps, the 1.5-inch frog was revealed. Patience had paid off.
Here, with feet saturated, ignoring the mosquitos, Smith recalls being as enthralled as the very first time he saw this species many years ago.
Finding a Chorus of Frogs
The jewel of this wonderful ecosystem — and its namesake — the Pine Barrens Treefrog (Hyla andersonii) is a beautifully camouflaged amphibian that can hide right in front of you. With an emerald green color complemented by a purplish band down its side and yellowish orange patches where its limbs meet the body, this frog can disappear in the twigs, leaves and stems of highbush blueberry or the bristly long needles of a pitch pine branch.
The treefrog finds a global stronghold in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, less than an hour east of Philadelphia. Classified as threatened in New Jersey and ranked by the IUCN as globally Near Threatened, this species requires a very specific habitat in which to thrive. Shallow acidic pools within healthy stretches of natural habitat will support these treefrogs in the five eastern states where they can be found. Their most ideal environment is wetlands that hold water seasonally — spring and early summer rains will accumulate in wet depressions, but typically dry out before summer is over, so that predatory fish and other species that might outcompete them have limited access.
As a disjunct species (found in populations separated geographically), it is essential to keep a pulse on their distribution and abundance, as the threats to the survival of these amphibians are many — pesticides from runoff, invasive species, habitat loss and fragmentation and climate change. For this reason, community science inventories can be instrumental in monitoring population health and distribution, as well as providing scientists with the most comprehensive data to manage conservation efforts.
Most states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania have existing opportunities for people to get involved, while various conservation organizations invite people to participate in these efforts as well.
The Future of the Region’s Biodiversity
“I have led many educational and community science adventures into the Pine Barrens over the past three decades,” Smith describes. “From elementary students to adults, these experiences are transformative. It is widely understood that we will only protect that which we love and value. Though many may not know that the Pine Barrens Treefrog (and other species) even exist, once they encounter them, people are hooked!”
Now in an age of biodiversity decline, Smith, who is author of Adventures in Community Science, believes we must go one step further as a global community, that all of us must participate in securing the habitat and environment of species that need our help. “The time is now and you are needed,” he says, encouraging readers to join with thousands of other community scientists out there — people just like you who want to explore the natural world and make a difference in the movement to protect life on our planet!
Understanding, appreciating and conserving biodiversity has been at the core of the Academy’s science work since its founding in 1812. With 19 million specimens and counting, our collections are not only a window into the past, but also a critical tool for measuring the current and future health of all Earth’s species.
During Biodiversity Year, join us as we bring our understanding of the natural world from the lab to City Hall and beyond, so that together, we are a force for nature.