Robin Moore is no stranger to crawling around hot, damp jungles. That's good, because that's where he found himself for much of the duration of the Lost Frogs project, which brought together 33 teams of researchers across 21 countries in the hope of finding 100 species of frogs that have, perhaps, been lost to us forever.
The project culminated in a gorgeous book that's filled with beautiful images and the harrowing tales of hunting for these amphibians. But most importantly, the book shares the science behind what frogs disappearing around the globe means for planet Earth. It is told in a compelling prose that draws you in and keeps you there for the duration of the book — and will likely leave you wanting for more.
Earning rave reviews across the world in publications from The Guardian to Wired magazine, "In Search of Lost Frogs" is drawing the attention of everyone from nature photographers to conservationists to ecologists to people who are simply fascinated by frogs and salamanders. We spoke with Moore about what it was like to launch such an enormous project, to be out in the field searching for and photographing frogs that seem to have risen from the mists of extinction.
This glass frog, found and photographed in the Choco of Colombia, shows off its stunningly colored eyes as it peers from between the crease in a leaf.
MNN: The diversity of amphibians is simply staggering! If anyone thinks they know about the diversity of frogs and toads, they only need to crack open this book to be humbled. What did it feel like to be on this enormous expedition? What did you come out of it knowing (or not)?
Robin Moore: One of the things about amphibians that continues to enthrall me is the never-ending diversity of species, behaviors, colors, shapes and sizes. Pulling together this huge expedition also taught me how little we really know about the status of many of these animals in the wild. There are over 7,000 species of amphibians, more than 250 of which have not been seen in well over a decade — this is a humbling reminder that we are just scratching the surface in terms of knowing and understanding our world.
My greatest teacher of recent years is my 2-year-old son, Kena. Last weekend we went searching for salamanders together in a wooded area near our home. As we curled back a log and he set eyes upon his first salamander, his face illuminated and he could not contain his excitement. It was a relatively abundant species, a red-backed salamander, but to him it was the most fascinating creature in the world. Kena teaches me to see the familiar with wide-eyed wonder and curiosity. Abundant or rare, local or exotic, every individual of every species is unique and fascinating in its own right.
A gliding treefrog perches on a log covered with mushrooms in the Osa Peninsula.
Tell us about Lazarus species. What does the term mean, and what are some of the species the project found that fit the category?
Lazarus frogs are those frogs that have reappeared after many years of being thought extinct. For instance, the rainbow toad of Borneo was found after 87 years without record after Dr. Indraneil Das and team spent eight months searching for the toad.
The Hula painted frog vanished after its wetland home in Israel was drained in the mid-1950s. In 1996, after more than 40 years without a trace, it was the first amphibian to be declared extinct by the IUCN or International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Some sections of the wetland were reflooded as people realized that a unique ecosystem had been lost, but it was widely accepted that the frog was gone for good, and it became a symbol of extinction in Israel. In 2011, a year after the Hula painted frog graced our Wanted Alive poster, it was rediscovered. I even went to Israel in search of this iconic frog, and devote a chapter of my book to this story.
What does it mean for a species to be "lost"? It is clear that through the rediscovery of some 50 species and new discoveries made during the way, that the term "lost" can mean many things, including simply out of sight or on the brink, but perhaps not gone for good. (Or maybe it does.) What does it mean to you?
There is no standard definition of a lost species. A lost species, in my eyes, is one that has not been seen for at least a couple of generations (we came up with a minimum of 10 years without record as the cutoff), that has been nominated by an amphibian expert as worth validating whether or not it exists. All lost species on our list are frogs, salamanders or caecilians [a species that resemble earthworms or snakes] that someone somewhere is driven to go searching for by the prospect of rediscovery. Many are categorized by the IUCN as either extinct or possibly extinct, and many live in such remote or inaccessible areas that searches have been challenging in recent years and decades.
This ventriloqual frog is a critically endangered species in Macaya Biosphere Reserve on the Massif de la Hotte, Haiti. Little is known about it as only a few individuals have been found, and it was last seen in 1991. That is, until being rediscovered in 2010, making it one member of the short list of the Lazarus frogs.
On an epic expedition like this, there are bound to be low points, times when the frustration, depression, or enormity of the project get to you. Did you have moments like this?
Yes, absolutely — many. I had no idea how much media attention the campaign would attract, and that attention put on a lot of pressure to produce some good stories. I worried that we would not find any of our lost species, and for the first several weeks, as expedition after expedition returned home empty-handed, this possibility looked frighteningly real.
The lowest point for me was on my first expedition to Colombia to search for the Mesopotamia beaked toad, a species last seen in 1914. I invited journalist Lucy Cooke on the expedition. Lucy secured a commission with the Telegraph Magazine (her words and my photos), and I had this naïve belief that if we wanted to find the toad enough, we would. The moment of realization that we weren’t going to find it, as the light was waning on the last day of our search, was gut-wrenching. We were lucky to salvage the story with the discovery of two new species, including a beaked toad, and so we ended on a high.
This tiny creature is a juvenile Macaya breast-spot frog, a critically endangered species in the Massif de la Hotte. For nearly 20 years it disappeared from view of researchers, but was rediscovered in 2010. The species is one of the smallest frogs in the world.
What is it like to photograph these frogs? What are some of the conditions you worked in, and what kind of equipment did you rely upon?
Most of the time I am searching for frogs in rain forests during the rainy season, which can make difficult conditions for shooting. In Costa Rica, my camera died on my second day of shooting — in humidity that soaked my bed sheets — and did not resuscitate. I always carry a lot of silica gel to try and dry out my gear between shoots.
In the low and contrasty light of the rain forests, or at night when most frogs are active, I also rely on artificial light — I carry with me at least two flashes, a cable to get the flashes off camera, and light diffusers such as soft boxes to create soft shadows and reduce glare on moist skin. I like to try different set ups with lighting because I enjoy happy accidents — it can be very tempting to find a formula that works and stick with it, so I am always challenging myself to try different ways of photographing the frogs. In Costa Rica, I found a glass frog on a leaf and wanted to capture its translucence without placing it on a transparent surface, so I backlit the leaf with one of my flashes.
A reticulated glass frog clings to a leaf and demonstrates why they are so named; their skin is virtually transparent.
The book documents not just frogs and toads, but the macro environments in which they live, or cease to live — environments made unrecognizable through human encroachment and misuse. You document these, as well as the people whose economic and social situations make it tough for them to be advocates for conservation. Tell us a little about the human side of the project.
This aspect is as interesting to me as the frogs themselves because conservation is ultimately about empowering people to protect their natural environment. I searched for frogs in Colombia and Haiti, among other places, where the future of the frogs’ home depends on many complex socioeconomic factors. In Haiti, I quickly realized that you can’t simply talk about frog conservation to people who are going to bed hungry every night. I became very interested in the challenge of making conservation relevant to the daily lives of people living on the front lines — those in intimate contact with their environment who are hurt the most when it gets destroyed.
This led me, after more than half a dozen visits, to co-found a project in Haiti called Frame of Mind, which focuses on empowering young Haitians to connect with their natural worlds through photography and storytelling.
Giving the participants cameras and teaching them the fundamentals of storytelling has helped to open both their eyes and mine to a different way of seeing and has helped to redefine their relationship with nature. Their images and stories have been a powerful conduit for delivering a conservation message throughout Haiti.
What elements of the project did you find most fulfilling as a conservation photographer?
I found that having a hook on which to hang my images was extremely fulfilling — "The Search for Lost Frogs" became a platform for telling stories that wove into a larger story, and that larger story was one that I was very driven to tell.
The sighting of this variable harlequin frog is the subject of a particularly inspiring story of "In Search of Lost Frogs." The critically endangered species was thought to be extinct before it was rediscovered in Costa Rica in 2003.
It seems like a major highlight, perhaps the highlight, for you was seeing the variable harlequin frog. Tell us about that experience.
I have always found the harlequin frogs fascinating – their striking colors, regal gait and rarity make them especially beautiful and mysterious. The variable harlequin frog in particular had been elevated to mythical status in the landscape of my imagination.
This was one of the first frogs to reappear after it disappeared alongside the golden toad of Costa Rica, and it achieved celebrity status through the simple expedience of survival. It became an icon of hope. Trying to find someone who could take me to see the frog turned out to be exceptionally difficult, and this only fueled my desire to see and photograph it.
I traveled to a remote stream running through mist-shrouded forest in southern Costa Rica, and had one shot at seeing the frog. The conditions were far from ideal — it was too cool and heavy air promised rain. I was expecting to leave disappointed. The moment I saw the beautiful orange and black animal scaling a moss-covered rock was reverential.
If there's a single idea you want readers to ponder during or after reading this book, what is it?
I would like readers to ponder the idea of what gives a species value, enough to make us want to save it. What is our role and responsibility as conservationists, as communicators, and as individuals of the one species on Earth capable of consciously saving or exterminating other species, in ensuring the preservation of those life forms that are silently slipping out of existence around us?
Robin Moore searching for lost frogs in Sonson, Antioquia, Colombia.
Related on MNN:
- Can photos of ice help translate the science of climate change?
- Photographer belts out a love song to Everglades with new book
- How one photographer's foolishness is saving endangered wildlife