From Childhood Fascination to Frog Conservation: An Interview with Robin Moore
“We’ve described over 7,000 species, but we haven’t even scraped the surface.”
Robin Moore, the Vice President of Communications and Marketing for Re:wild, turned his childhood fascination with frogs into a career in conservation. In this conversation with Bioneers’ Teo Grossman, he talks about growing up in Edinburgh and spending his summers in the Highlands, where he had a passionate connection with the frogs and other wildlife in his backyard. He went on to study zoology and ecology, eventually earning a Ph.D. and studying a species of frog in Majorca, Spain. After realizing the extent of the threat facing amphibians, he became more involved in frog conservation efforts and spearheaded a project called The Search for Lost Frogs at Conservation International.
TEO: As a child, what intrigued you most about frogs?
ROBIN: A couple of years ago, my younger brother dug up a diary of mine from when I was 7 years old. He took photos and posted them all over Facebook. One of those pictures was a drawing I had done of me emptying frog spawn into a large tank, and that pretty much summed up my childhood. I spent a lot of my waking hours out looking for frogs and newts.
I think what intrigued me the most was I was able to get intimate with them. I tried catching mice and they bit me. Birds would fly away. But with amphibians, I was able actually to get in there. I was able to collect spawn. I was able to raise them in my bedroom and watch this incredible transformation from egg to tadpole to frog. It was almost like watching evolution on speed. In three weeks, you had this incredible transformation.
As soon as I learned more about them, that these animals had been around since the dinosaurs … I mean, what kid isn’t fascinated by dinosaurs? Here you’ve got a creature on your doorstep, in your backyard, that was actually around alongside the dinosaurs and is still with us. That, for me, was just absolutely fascinating.
TEO: So you lived within collecting distance of a number of frogs?
ROBIN: Yeah. I grew up in Edinburgh. We would spend our summer holidays in the Highlands. That, for me, was heaven because I would roam the moors in these peat bogs. My grandparents’ neighbors had a pond, and I would climb onto my grandparents’ wall and sit there watching these frogs. I had this sort of intimate connection to wildlife right in the backyard.
TEO: Did that follow you all the way through? Did you go to college for it?
ROBIN: You know, I never planned a career in frogs, but it did follow me through. At school, when you’re really into this kind of thing, you’re sort of a weirdo. What I realized later in life is that the weirdos who hold onto that fascination are the most interesting. One of the biggest gifts you can have is to stay a child, keep your childlike sense of wonder and awe. I was lucky that I had the opportunity.
I went to study zoology, and then I went on to a Master’s in ecology, and then I went on to do a Ph.D., and I got to study a species of frog in Majorca, Spain, which was a pretty beautiful place to spend your summers measuring tadpoles. Shortly after I finished my Ph.D. was when I really found out what was happening to frogs around the world. So I got more involved in actual conservation.
I realized that my research was getting more and more obscure. Probably fewer and fewer people were reading these obscure papers. I wanted to be more active in trying to see what I could do to contribute to protecting amphibians, because at that point in 2004, the first comprehensive global assessment of amphibians had been done. It showed that a third of all species were threatened with extinction: over 6,000 species. That, to me, was just alarming. Growing up, extinction was something that happened to the dinosaurs. I had no idea that these animals in my backyard could be in trouble. The idea that they could one day be gone never even crossed my mind.
TEO: People talk about frogs and amphibians as the canary in the coal mine. You said you sort of have problems with that general way of thinking about it. I wonder if you could tell us about that.
ROBIN: I think it’s a useful metaphor. I think metaphors resonate with people. The canary in the coal mine analogy was good to get people aware of the crisis affecting amphibians. And it tied it directly back to us. It made people see that what was happening to amphibians was an indicator.
And amphibians are, generally, particularly sensitive to change. They have permeable skin, they have unprotected eggs, they generally have very small ranges, they’re tied to both freshwater and terrestrial. So they’re sensitive to changes in any of that. They’re cold-blooded, so they rely on the environment to regulate their own temperature and their breeding cycles.
My problem with the idea that they are the canary in the coal mine is that people don’t ever go down to the coal mine to save the canary. They die so we don’t have to. People would talk about amphibians being an early warning, but it wasn’t so early for them. I think it’s a very useful metaphor for getting people involved, but I think when you dig deeper, people first must actually care about the implications for amphibians and not just about what they’re telling us about our world.
TEO: This relates to the different motivations for conservation: the intrinsic value of the species, the right for the rest of nature to exist, which I think is really important.
ROBIN: Yes, there are different values that people attribute. For me, the intrinsic value is important. I recognize that it’s not for everyone; that we need to be appealing to all different values and speaking the languages of different audiences.
TEO: Can you tell me some stories or just kind of paint me a picture of what it is that you find so wondrous about frogs?
ROBIN: For one thing, there’s a never-ending array of diversity within frogs. Even having spent a childhood obsessing over them, a career studying them, I still learn things about them that blow me away. I saw a tiger tree frog in Colombia for the first time a few years ago. It was newly described. Incredible green and black stripes. I just thought that was incredible. It’s a living work of art. It would be like discovering a Picasso that nobody’s seen.
We’ve described over 7,000 species, but we haven’t even scraped the surface. In Madagascar alone, there are over 400 species described, but at least 150 species have not been described.
I did my Master’s thesis in Trinidad, where I was looking at different reproductive strategies of amphibians. It’s incredible the adaptations they have to different environments. In a single pond, you can have one frog that lays full nests on the top of the water with many, many eggs. And then you can have another frog that digs into the mud and lays its full nest, and then they go into this arrested development and wait for the rain to fill it, and the tadpoles come out.
The gastric brooding frog in Australia, which went extinct in the mid-80s, would ingest the eggs, turn off its stomach acid, paralyze its stomach muscles, and turn its stomach into a womb. The eggs would turn into tadpoles, the tadpoles would metamorphose into little frogs, and the little frogs would jump out of the frog’s mouth. For me, that’s just incredible. It’s the stuff of your childhood imagination. You couldn’t dream up those kinds of things.
TEO: At Conservation International, you spearheaded a project called The Search for Lost Frogs. Will you tell me a little about that?
ROBIN: When I joined Conservation International, it was right when we realized the dark predicament amphibians were in. I spent my first few there trying to get that message out. Then I realized it was even depressing me. It’s hard when you’re just hitting people over the head with these bleak, apocalyptic predictions of where we’re going.
I realized that I needed to do something that was a little more positive and hopeful. Despair is not a good motivator. If you’re making people feel hopeless, they feel powerless, and they tend to go back into their comfort zone and do whatever it is that makes them feel safe and secure. I wanted to motivate people by inspiring them.
My colleagues and I came up with this idea of putting together a list of lost species that hadn’t been seen in years or decades. I put together a little wanted-style poster of the top 10 and found out that people really liked it. The communications team at Conservation International loved it and helped me to roll out over six months this global search for lost frogs.
We supported 33 teams in 20 countries looking for lost species. We kind of invited people along for the journey. Having a six-month timeline on it helped keep the momentum on it. Then we had this platform to talk about occasional rediscoveries, but also to open the dialogue to conversation and the more nuanced aspects of this story. ‘Yes, we found these species, but, wow, there are 200 that we have on this list that are missing, that are gone, that may be extinct.’ It helped us to raise a profile and create flagships for conservation.
You know, we often elevate polar bears, pandas, tigers, and these icons of conservation. They can be important, but the reality is that most people are never going to see a polar bear in the wild. They’re never going to see a panda. So they don’t have that immediate connection. Whereas most people are never too far from a log under which a salamander might be curled or a pond with frogs. You can generate pride. If you go into an area and say you have a frog here that lives only here, and it’s yours, I think that’s a powerful motivator for protecting it and protecting its environment.
What we found with some of the lost species that were found is they went from these symbols of extinction to symbols of hope if you give nature a chance. There was one frog in Israel that disappeared for 55 years, and it was written off as being extinct. They re-flooded its habitat because it had been drained, and 10 years after it was re-flooded, the frog was found. It somehow had been hanging on. No one knows where it was.
That’s part of it. It’s the mystery, right? It’s the sort of unanswered questions that bring people in.
TEO: That’s an example of getting real-time feedback on the kind of the cultural success of a conservation project. You’re a widely exhibited and distributed photographer now. Do you hear from people about the emotional or even conservational impact of the photos that you’re producing?
ROBIN: I guess a recent example of that was when I was contacted by some partners in Jamaica saying that the government wanted to sell the largest protected area in the country to a corrupt conglomerate who were going to build a port, basically ripping apart the mangroves and flattening two islands. These were the home of one of the rarest lizards in the world – the Jamaican Iguana. They contacted me and asked for help in raising the profile of this issue. Nobody outside of Jamaica had heard about it.
I went down there, and I took photos. My last day there, I met a local Jamaican researcher working with the lizards named Booms. For me, it was kind of like, ‘This is the face of the struggle here.’ He had grown up in Kingston, and he’d moved seven years ago to start working on these iguanas that had changed his life. I came back, and I did a story on Booms. I used my images, and they got into National Geographic and The Guardian. Ziggy Marley shared the photos and the video. One day I looked, and it had 25,000 plays. We didn’t get much feedback on it though. The government was tight-lipped.
I went back a year and a half later to keep their feet to the fire, to try and reengage, and this time we produced a higher-production film. A filmmaker came with me to tell the story. Again, we got it out there. I actually did an Instagram takeover of National Geographic, and that was a real-time way of getting the story out to people. It created buzz within Jamaica.
I was posting 24 or 40 hours behind so that I didn’t alert the authorities to where I was. I was told if they knew where I was, they would likely intervene. When I got back, I projected the film onto the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, D.C., with a #savegoatislands hashtag. I basically did this whole campaign around #savegoatislands.
Again, it just went quiet. This was a $1.5 billion investment, so it was really sort of David and Goliath story. None of us were that hopeful. But later, the prime minister of Jamaica was in New York in a town hall meeting, and someone put their hand up and said, “What’s happening with Goat Islands?” And he said they had scrapped that project because of the environmental concerns.
I don’t know the impact that the images had on that decision, but I think they helped. From what I’ve heard, they had an impact. They helped get the word out there. There were some images I got of baby iguanas coming out of someone’s hand, and it brought you face-to-face with the issue.
TEO: Do you think there is more room for the arts in environmental and social justice movements? Is there more that you think we could be doing?
ROBIN: I think there’s much more room. Success, for me, would be a much closer relationship between the sciences and the arts. We have all these amazing scientists out there doing amazing stuff, but many of them are not communicating their work in a way that’s resonating with people. I think artists can take the findings and transform them into something that’s got cultural resonance, contextualize it in this broader picture of what’s happening, and can engage people.
When we try to communicate environmental issues, it’s easy to preach. It’s easy to point fingers. Art can deliver messages in a way that’s not preaching or guilting people. It’s opening a dialogue. Art has that emotional resonance, and that’s how you’re going to bring people in and motivate them to do something.