Follow-up ecological studies for cryptic species discoveries: Decrypting the leopard frogs of the eastern U.S.

Matthew D. Schlesinger, Jeremy A. Feinberg, Nathan H. Nazdrowicz, J. D. Kleopfer, Jeffrey C. Beane, John F. Bunnell, Joanna Burger, Edward Corey, Kathy Gipe, Jesse W. Jaycox, Erik Kiviat, Jacob Kubel, Dennis P. Quinn, Christopher Raithel, Peter A. Scott, Sarah M. Wenner, Erin L. White, Brian Zarate, H. Bradley Shaffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cryptic species are a challenge for systematics, but their elucidation also may leave critical information gaps about the distribution, conservation status, and behavior of affected species. We use the leopard frogs of the eastern U.S. as a case study of this issue. We refined the known range of the recently described Rana kauffeldi, the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog, relative to the region’s two other leopard frog species, conducted assessments of conservation status, and improved methods for separating the three species using morphological field characters. We conducted over 2,000 call and visual surveys and took photographs of and tissue samples from hundreds of frogs. Genetic analysis supported a three-species taxonomy and provided determinations for 220 individual photographed frogs. Rana kauffeldi was confirmed in eight U.S. states, from North Carolina to southern Connecticut, hewing closely to the Atlantic Coastal Plain. It can be reliably differentiated in life from R. pipiens, and from R. sphenocephala 90% of the time, based on such characters as the femoral reticulum patterning, dorsal spot size and number, and presence of a snout spot. However, the only diagnostic character separating R. kauffeldi from R. sphenocephala remains the breeding call described in 2014. Based on our field study, museum specimens, and prior survey data, we suggest that R. kauffeldi has declined substantially in the northern part of its range, but is more secure in the core of its range. We also report, for the first time, apparent extirpations of R. pipiens from the southeastern portion of its range, previously overlooked because of confusion with R. kauffeldi. We conclude with a generalized ecological research agenda for cryptic species. For R. kauffeldi, needs include descriptions of earlier life stages, studies of niche partitioning with sympatric congeners and the potential for hybridization, and identification of conservation actions to prevent further declines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0205805
JournalPloS one
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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