Looking for frogs in Okefenokee Swamp
Albert Hazen Wright, a Cornell biology professor for more than thirty years, and his wife Anna Allen Wright may be the two individuals most responsible for the construction of the Herpetology Collection. Together, the Wrights embarked on a lifelong project to catalogue and describe the amphibians and reptiles of the United States. This was a pioneering venture that had never before been undertaken in a comprehensive way in the New World. Many specimens that can still be seen in the collections today were collected by the Wrights on expeditions across the United States and Canada. Okefenokee Swamp is one of the places where the Wrights spent a significant amount of time, and it certainly must have been one of the more memorable environments they visited.
The Okefenokee Swamp: Then and Now
The Okefenokee Swamp is one of the most enchanting wild places in the U.S. today, much as it was when the Wrights visited. Water stained tea brown from tannins, but clean enough to drink; floating islands of peat moss that tremble underfoot; cypress trees towering out of still ponds; open prairies; bogs; and flowing water courses; these are some of the different environments contained within the boundaries of the Okefenokee.
Today, the swamp is protected as a National Wildlife Refuge, and the lack of roads and other human disruptions have allowed a great diversity of wildlife to thrive. In fact, parts of the swamp have now been slowly restored from logging that took place at the time of the Cornell expeditions. While there may no longer be wolves in the region, and one is unlikely to come across bears or cougars, swamp mammals include otters, deer, foxes, and several different species of bats and squirrels, among others. Swamp natives had names for over ninety different species of birds, including the ivory bill woodpecker, which was last sighted in the swamp in 1917; to date, more than 200 species of birds have been identified there. Of course, as the Wrights knew well, the wetland environment serves as a “herpetological paradise.” There are 66 species of reptiles, including the alligator, which for many people is the defining creature of the swamp; Alligators shape the environment by clearing vegetation to create paths and “gator holes” in the prairies. And then there are the amphibians. 22 species of frogs have a range that overlaps with the swamp. The Wrights document them all in their classic book Life-histories of the Frogs of Okefinokee Swamp, Georgia.
What does Okefinokee Swamp sound like? Click here to hear for yourself.
Albert Hazen Wright and Anna Allen Wright: A Cornell Couple
Like many college romances before and after their time, the Wrights’ began when Albert was a teaching assistant in a class Anna was taking. Not surprisingly, the class was vertebrate zoology. Albert Wright had started out as a botanist. After making his way through the botanical collections at Cornell, he became fascinated by the vertebrate specimens housed at that time in McGraw Hall. He decided that he wanted to study those same creatures alive and in their natural habitat. By 1908 he had earned a Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D in zoology as a prelude to a long career as a Cornell professor. Anna Allen came to Cornell after spending two years after high school as a schoolteacher. Initially a part-time student, she wanted to promote natural history study in the classroom, especially among city children.
The Mystery of the “Coat-bet” Frog
Albert Wright first visited the Okefenokee in 1912 on a Cornell biological expedition. He returned along with Anna nine years later and they spent amuch of 1921 and 1922 living on Billy’s Island with a logging crew, with the Chesser family of Chesser’s Island, or camping out in various parts of the 438,000 acre wilderness. The Chessers and the other homesteaders of the Okefinokee region were able to share a good deal of information about the native plants and animals of which they had intimate knowledge. However, much of the information contained in Life Histories of the Frogs of Okefinokee Swamp, Georgia and also in their classic text Handbook of Frogs and Toads of the United States and Canada was gleaned through repeated exposure to the environment over several seasons, combined with the attentiveness and persistence characteristic of any good naturalist. The story of the “Coat bet” frog illustrates how the Wrights worked.
Hyla gratiosa is the largest native tree-frog in the U.S. Despite its size, this frog has several elusive qualities. It’s a burrower, and is almost never seen except in warm weather. It can dramatically change color to camouflage itself, from brownish–green to electric lime. Making things more difficult for the Wrights, it is not one of the more abundant species in the swamp and rarely appears in large choruses like many of the other species.
The Wrights first identified H. gratiosa on June 5, 1921, when they heard the “tonk tonk” call – like the sound of someone pounding on a big hollow barrel – and were able to identify the calling individual. The Chessers referred to these frogs as “Coat bets” because when more than are calling from the same pond, they modify the “tonk” sound and synchronize their vocalizations to produce a noise that sounded to the Chessers like “coat bet.” The Wrights noted the “coat bets” calling from the pond several more times that year and the next, especially after heavy rains during the summertime.
Around the same ponds in the summer months, the Wrights would often hear a curious barking noise coming from the trees. Mr. Chesser told them that many locals thought it to be made by a “red-headed scorpion,” although he himself thought that it was some kind of frog. Throughout June and July, Albert Wright’s field notebook contains many references to the barking frog, with different suggestions as to its true identity. H. cinerea, H. gratiosa, and H. andersonii were all considered, but none could be conclusively confirmed or rejected; the barker remained anonymous. On July 26, 1922, more than a year after first hearing the barking, the Wrights were traveling to Folkston, a town not far from Chesser’s Island, to the east of the swamp. About three miles out, they heard the barking coming from a cypress pond. Albert rushed after the sound and followed it 5 feet up a small gum tree, where he found a Hyla gratiosa puffing out its throat and emitting the odd noises. Several others were in the pond, making the “tonk” sound. The Wrights could finally confirm that “coat bets” and barkers are one and the same, varying their call depending on their location. Today, H. gratiosa is commonly known as the Barking tree-frog.
photo from: http://www.bio.sdsu.edu/pub/tod/herpetology/anurans/US_anurans.html
Francis Harper and the Inhabitants of Okefenokee
Francis Harper was a junior member of the 1912 Cornell biological expedition along with Albert Wright, and the two worked closely together for many studying the flora and fauna of the region. Harper fell in love with the Okefenokee’s unique habitat on his first visit. He came back and built a house there later, eventually earning the proud designation of a real Georgia “cracker” – a backwoods native. Harper spent decades documenting the wildlife and the environment of the Okefenokee, as well as the culture of the people who lived there.
Harper met many of the individuals with whom he would have life-long connections on that first expedition. Homesteaders such as Dave Lee, whose family lived on Billy’s Island, served as guides and hosts to the scientists. At first, Harper was impressed by the degree of isolation the “swampers” experienced from the rest of the world. Two of his new friends mocked him good-naturedly for suggesting that the world was round and rotated: “Well boys, I guess I better fasten muh boat ter the shanty ternight, so it won’t drop off when we git down ter where China is!” Nearly as shocking to the young Cornell student, Lee had never heard the popular tune Stephen Foster tune “Suwannee River.” At the same time, Harper would soon admit that many of the swampers knew more about the natural history of the swamp than he could hope to learn in a lifetime. He also came to treasure their unique culture, which preserved many elements of the Scottish and British heritage brought to the South by its earliest settlers. Harper meticulously documented the dialect, songs, stories, and way of life of the Okefenokee residents.
Harper and his wife Jean also did a good deal to preserve the swamp from human encroachment. Jean Harper had once tutored the children of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and when the swamp came under threat from loggers and highway builders, she began writing letters to the President. It took persistence, but she eventually received a response that he was personally interested in the preservation of the swamp. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was fianlly established in 1937. Ironically, while this has successfully preserved the natural habitat for successive generations, it effectively ended the way of life of the swamp folk. The people whose culture Harper cherished were forced to leave because their livelihood depended on killing the wild animals in the swamp for food and to protect the crops and animals they raised.
Harper, Francis, and Delma E. Presley. Okefinokee Album. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1981.
Wright, Albert Hazen. Life-Histories of the Frogs of Okefinokee Swamp, Georgia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Last modified 2006-09-08 15:12