Lawrence native helps discover new frog species

Growing up in Lawrence, Emily Moriarty Lemmon developed a fascination with frogs when she was 11 years old.

“We had a creek in our back yard that I’d go down to and catch turtles and frogs down there,” the 29-year-old Moriarty Lemmon said. “I’ve been interested in studying frogs for a number of years now, and one of my lifetime goals was to ascribe a species, eventually.”

This week, an international taxonomy journal recognized Moriarty Lemmon and a team of herpetologists for reaching that goal: the discovery of a new species. She and her husband, Alan Lemmon, were completing fieldwork when they spotted the first unique North American frog species in more than two decades.

“It was not my focus to find a new species,” Moriarty Lemmon said. “We kind of just stumbled onto this frog. I didn’t expect to find a new species in this country.”

The inch-long amphibian is part of a group called the chorus frogs and its scientific name is pseudacris fouquettei (pronounced sue-day-kris, foe-kett-tie), named after Martin Fouquette, a retired professor of biology at Arizona State University.

Nicknamed the Cajun chorus frog, the new species is located throughout Louisiana, Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma and eastern Texas.

“The first time we found this frog was in 2001,” Moriarty Lemmon said. “We were doing some fieldwork in Louisiana, and we thought we were recording this one widespread species called the Upland chorus frog.”

But the more Moriarty Lemmon examined the frog, the more she started to believe she had stumbled onto a new species. Frogs have advertisement calls, which males use to attract mates. The call of the Louisiana frog struck Moriarty Lemmon as different.

“This frog has a distinct advertisement call. When you go out to a pond and hear frogs calling in a pond, those are males that are advertising. They’re trying to attract females to mate with them,” Moriarty Lemmon said. “This new species has a call that is very different than the Upland chorus frog, which is what it was thought to be a part of before.”

Moriarty Lemmon checked its DNA and compared it to the other species. The frog had to be checked for morphological, behavioral and genetic differences to ensure it was indeed a new species.

Joseph Collins, of Lawrence, and David C. Cannatella, of Texas, helped Moriarty Lemmon and her husband discover and ascribe the species.

“This is the pinnacle, as far as we’re concerned, of what biology is all about – the discovery of something new,” Collins said. “There’s nothing more exciting than discovering a new animal.”

Collins is responsible for the frog’s nickname.

“I like to say that it has a Cajun twang when it sings,” he said. “And anyway, the folks in Louisiana deserve their own frog.”

Though Moriarty Lemmon and her team made the discovery more than seven years ago, they didn’t receive credit until Wednesday, when Zootaxa, an international taxonomy journal, recognized the new species in print.

“We were working on other projects during that time but we kept chipping away at gathering the data for ascribing this new species,” Moriarty Lemmon said. “One of the things we had to do was borrow specimens (of chorus frogs) from about 15 or so museums around the country to compare to the one we found.”

Moriarty Lemmon and her husband borrowed more than 800 specimens from different museums and measured each individual frog in nine different places.

“My husband and I spent an entire summer every Saturday, all day, measuring frogs. It’s a lot of work,” Moriarty Lemmon said.

Though discovering a new species is something Moriarty Lemmon has hoped to accomplish for years, the achievement came as a surprise.

“People have been studying the United States so intensely for so many years … so it is really exciting to find a new species in the United State because it doesn’t happen very often anymore,” Moriarty Lemmon said. “I’m hoping in the future to do more research in South and Central America and so probably during my studies out there we’ll be more likely to find additional species.”