Published: October 8, 2016

Mystery of a Forgotten Botanist and a Rare Frog

A collections cold case, reopened. 

Black and white photo of a man with a mustache, next to a dried plant specimen

Part of a scientist’s work is continuing to uncover new things about specimens that were collected a long time ago, adding new information that enhances our understanding of the natural world. When one Field Museum collections manager started asking questions about a small frog, he didn’t suspect it would lead down such a winding road.

Black and white photo of preserve frog specimen

It all began when Alan Resetar, Collections Manager of Amphibians and Reptiles, started researching the holotype specimen of the Hoosier frog (Rana circulosa). Even though it is the holotype—an individual specimen used to describe an entire species or subspecies—the frog didn’t have a lot of documentation. Its discovery date was only known to be sometime before 1879, and its collection locality of Benton County, Indiana, was disputed. The frog’s discoverer was a mystery, identified only as “E.F. Shipman.”

Kind of like detectives reopening a cold case, Alan and Donna Resetar (librarian, genealogist, and public records expert) began retracing E.F. Shipman’s steps. The hope was that uncovering information about Shipman’s life would lead to the date and location of the frog’s discovery. With historical and genealogical clues (and some luck), the Resetars found that Elias Francis Shipman, a prolific plant collector with a humble Indiana upbringing, was the man behind the initials.

With more digging, Alan and Donna learned that Shipman eventually left Indiana to attend Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. In the 1870s, he donated 2,000 plant specimens to what was then Northwestern’s natural history museum. He also donated the infamous Hoosier frog. When that museum closed, the frog became part of the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ collection. And, in a fateful twist, many of Shipman’s plant specimens ended up in The Field Museum’s own herbarium.

Handwritten specimen label for a plant

Based on Shipman’s labels for plant specimens he collected in Benton County, and his school schedule, Donna narrowed down the window in which Shipman and the frog could’ve been in the same place: “The only time Shipman collected extensively in Indiana was the summer and fall of 1876, when the Northwestern documentation indicates he was not on campus.”*

While the Resetars formed a better picture of when and where the frog came from, some mystery remains. The Hoosier frog has since been renamed as the northern crawfish frog (Lithobates areolatus circulosus). It is secretive by nature, living in burrows created by crawfish, where it hides out in summer and winter. There still haven’t been any documented sightings of this frog in Benton County since 1876.

As for E.F. Shipman? Not much else is known about him; he likely died young, around age 35. But his incredible contributions to science remain, in the form of the Hoosier frog holotype and many rare and endangered plant specimens that are now preserved in The Field Museum’s botany collections.

*From “Doctor Elias Francis Shipman and the Hoosier Frog” by Alan and Donna Resetar, published in Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science.