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Toad hunting with the Peabody’s new director

On Thursday, President Salovey tapped ecologist Dave Skelly, a veteran professor at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, to be the next director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Skelly, 49, the associate dean for research at FES and, since 2000, a curator of amphibians at the Peabody, will, at the beginning of July, take over the directorship from paleontologist Derek Briggs, who has held the post since 2008 and returns to teaching and research.

“Professor Skelly is a native of Connecticut whose life was forever altered when he first set foot in the Peabody as a young child and was inspired by the museum’s wonders to start down the road to becoming a scientist,” noted Salovey in announcing the appointment. “Today he regularly visits the museum with his own children.”

When I got the news about Dave, I was elated. I’ve known him since 1996, when he joined the FES faculty as an assistant professor, and because his professional research interests in amphibian ecology jibed with my journalistic and personal endeavors in the same area, we became friends. I’ve followed his work on such hot topics as amphibian deformities, population declines, and, most recently, a disturbing increase in intersex frogs, and I’ve written numerous stories about the research for this magazine, including a cover profile. I’ve also spent lots of time in the field with him, and have benefited personally from his fine teaching ability.

So, on reading the press release about his new position, I racked my brain for an appropriate celebratory gift. As it happened, nature, quite unexpectedly, provided one that very evening.

The night of May 1 was merely misty, the aftermath of almost four inches of rain that had fallen during the past 24 hours, and whenever we get that much precipitation in the warmer weather, I, at Dave’s behest, head to a secret location in southeastern Connecticut to listen and look for one of the state’s most endangered amphibians: the spadefoot toad.

Scaphiopus holbrookii spends most of its long life deep underground, but when the warm deluges arrive, the animal, which has been living in a state of near-suspended animation six feet or so down, somehow feels the rain, awakes, burrows quickly to the surface, and heads to reconstituted ponds to call, mate, lay eggs, then disappear, using hardened spades on its back feet to burrow back to safety. I’d last heard spadefoots at this particular location in July 2009; on the night in question, I heard them again, made a recording, and quickly sent it to Dave as a kind of present, one naturalist to another.

His response was equally fast—and telling: can we come see them?

The following night, Dave and his grad student Max Lambert ’19PhD made the one-hour trip east, and after about an hour of listening and looking in the dark, our headlamps searching for spadefoot eyeshine, Max found our quarry. Dave was ecstatic.

While he had studied spadefoots before, chiefly for a Curator’s Choice exhibit he and herpetology and ichthyology collections manager Gregory Watkins-Colwell put together at the museum several years ago, it was the first time he had seen this amphibian in the wild in the state. It was a record that could help the Peabody document the creature and perhaps enable the museum to aid efforts aimed at enabling the spadefoot to hold on in Connecticut.

The fact that Dave would trek more than 60 miles on the mere possibility he’d see a spadefoot (it could easily have disappeared back underground) speaks volumes about the natural-history heart and soul of the man who will lead Yale’s venerable natural history museum. So does Dave’s response, as we viewed and held the surprisingly mellow amphibian. “Awesome,” he said, with the kind of trademark enthusiasm I’d witnessed on other collecting trips. “Such a cool species, and a real privilege to get to see it up close."

Bruce Fellman is a contributing writer and former managing editor of the magazine.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Dave Skelly, Peabody Museum, spadefoot toad
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