By Carol Moran
A man walks through the glass doors of Stony Brook University Medical Center, stopping briefly at the reception desk, a tiny child’s pigtails bobbing at his side. He starts off towards the right until the life-sized sculpture of a prehistoric frog with eyes wide and mouth gaping atop a display shelf captures his attention. He leans in close and reaches out to touch it, then jumps back into the reality of his hospital visit and guides the child away.
The hospital lobby is a chaotic mix of visitors, nurses pushing around monitors, students shuffling to class, and more ominously, patients looking for some distraction during their wait. On a sunny day, the frog is angled just close enough to the windows for the rays of light to glint off its glazed surface, perhaps catching someone’s eye.
The model looks like any regular grass-hopping frog, with rough-textured sandy-colored skin—only it’s not. Weighing in at 10 pounds and at 16 and a half inches, it is the largest frog to have ever been discovered. The world’s second largest frog, the Goliath frog, weighs up to seven pounds and grows to roughly thirteen inches.
From where it sits at Stony Brook, near a gift shop and a Starbucks, the model frog is a long way from where its species once lived roughly 70 million years ago. The discovery, which consisted of 75 fossil fragments—some as small as a fingernail—took fifteen years of digging in a remote part of Madagascar by a team of paleontologists and graduate students. Eight floors above the hospital lobby, the model’s original fossils sit in a shelf just down the hall from Dr. David Krause’s office. Krause led the excavation.
“You know that you are going to potentially see something that no one’s ever seen or discovered before—ever,” Krause said of the excavation process. “We get to be like little kids sometimes when we find things in the field.”
And Krause is no stranger to that feeling. Madagascar has been a paleontological gold mine leading to many significant discoveries, including the skeleton of a 70 million-year-old meat-eating dinosaur, Majungasaurus crenatissimus, whose skull rests in a glass case only feet from where the frog sits. Simosuchus clarki, a bizarre, possibly vegetarian, pug-nosed crocodile seems to smile at its viewers from its own glass case in the same exhibit. Displayed next to the crocodile is a small theropod dinosaur named Masiakasaurus knopfleri after singer Mark Knopfler because, coincidentally, Krause’s team found more fossils when Knopfler’s music was played.
Stony Brook University Medical Center Development Council funded the exhibit with the philosophy that it would provide an educational and interesting distraction for hospital visitors and patients. For Krause, it serves that purpose—and another.
Among the fossils is a sign for the Madagascar Ankizy Fund, an organization created by Krause that is dedicated to building schools and financing health and dental clinics on the island. The world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar is home to 20.7 million people with an average life expectancy of just 59 years. The average mother has six children, and most families reside in tiny huts with walls of grass and mud floors. There is virtually no health or dental care in remote parts of the island, and children often die of easily curable illnesses like malaria and diarrhea.
Krause established the fund in 1998, calling it Ankizy, the Malagasy word for children. Since then, it has financed four schools and medical and dental clinics, as well as healthcare training, access to clean water, and income generating projects. Krause teaches at the University in the fall, and then spends the remainder of his year doing research for future excavations and finalizing the logistics for the next trip to the island. The field season, which is the period of time he spends in Madagascar overseeing both the health clinics and the excavations, usually lasts from June to mid-August.
What began as a one-shot trip with only paleontological motives has evolved into a life-long mission to improve the lives of others and to further uncover what Krause called the “mother load” of fossils seventeen years later.
“I fully anticipate that it will consume the rest of my career,” Krause said, “and it’s been terrific scientifically.”
The discovery of the large frog was what kept Krause’s scientific intrigue directed towards Madagascar. Named Beelzebufo ampinga, after the Greek word Beelzebub, meaning devil, and the Latin word for toad, bufo, the frog had jaws large enough to work their way around alligators, and perhaps even small dinosaurs. A frog that large and powerful would capture anyone’s attention—and in the case of the model in the hospital exhibit, even those with serious medical matters on the mind might find it an appreciated preoccupation.
“There is more to medical care than just technology and healthcare givers,” said Krause. The exhibit acts as a “welcome distraction to both patients and visitors,” he said.
Near the entrance, a young woman in a wheelchair has her head down as she glances into the glass case displaying the bones of Masiakasaurus knopfleri. The woman’s hands rest around a bouquet of flowers that sits in her lap as she stares pensively at the bones. Moments later a man comes up from behind her, gives her a kiss and the two exit through the same glass doors.