In August 2010, more than 120 scientists spread out over five continents looking for animals that supposedly didn't exist anymore. The search for lost amphibians was on, and researchers hoped to rediscover frog, toad, and salamander species that hadn't been seen in decades. In the case of the Bornean rainbow toad, it hadn't been seen for almost 90 years.
A 2008 global assessment of amphibians—the most recent examination—found many species hammered by a changing climate, habitat destruction, and the voracious chytrid fungus, which attacks the skin, hampering a frog's ability to breathe, and results in cardiac arrest. About 159 species were likely already extinct, the report stated.
The Search for Lost Frogs campaign—the brainchild of Robin Moore and colleagues at Conservation International—aimed to raise awareness about the plight of these creatures. Thirty-three research teams around the world were given six months to search for the "top ten" most wanted frog, toad, and salamander species.
Four years ago, why did you want to go searching for frogs that hadn't been seen, in some cases, for nearly a hundred years?
Around that time an interesting phenomenon was happening. Since the late 1980s into the '90s, a lot of frogs disappeared or were thought to have gone extinct. But then, some started reappearing after decades. I was fascinated.
Where have these frogs been? They've survived where others have disappeared around them. It's like turning up to a mass murder and finding an eyewitness who survived. What can they tell us about what happened, and how we can prevent this happening again?
And that grew into supporting 33 research teams—over 120 scientists—in 21 countries to actually go looking for these frogs. It became the largest global coordinated search for lost species.
How do you get someone to give you money to go looking for something that's probably not there?
Getting money for amphibian conservation as a whole is very challenging. People don't seem to empathize as much with frogs and salamanders as they do with pandas and polar bears. But for some reason, this captured people's imaginations. It was actually easier to get support for this than most of our other work.
I think, in some ways, it's a tangible product. It's almost like you're supporting these teams to go and bring a species back to life. Our other work—protecting habitats—is a harder sell because you're trying to prevent something from happening.
In the book you describe some of the obstacles that the teams had to deal with, including dangerous animals and conflict zones. You yourself faced armed guerrillas in the jungle. Why would someone be willing to put up with that?
They're driven by that possibility of discovery, rediscovery—that feeling you have when you find a new species or you rediscover a species that hasn't been seen in decades. Certainly in Colombia that's what drove me—the thought of being the first to see a beaked toad that hadn't been recorded in a hundred years.
You note several times in the book that frogs are the pinnacle of evolutionary design. What do you mean by that?
They're sensitive to change, but they're also one of the biggest survivors. They've actually survived five mass extinctions on Earth. So it's even more alarming that they're at the forefront of this sixth mass extinction, driven by us. The changes that are happening now are triggering something that is wiping them out.
That's what I mean by pinnacle of evolutionary design—they've endured. They reached their current form millions and millions of years ago, and they've endured in that form for over 200 million years. It's obviously been working for them until now.
Why are amphibians having such a hard time?
I think with frogs it's a perfect storm of conditions. This disease, the one caused by the chytrid fungus, is one of the most dramatic, and one that really sets amphibians apart. It's been called the most damaging disease to biodiversity in the history of our time on Earth.
The gun has been loaded by other stressors—like climate change—and disease is pulling the trigger.
Habitat loss is still the main threat—it's less dramatic, less visible than chytrid deaths. You don't see piles of dead frogs when you lose a forest.
But frogs often have such small ranges. Many are just found in one stream or a couple of streams—the Costa Rica golden toad was known from maybe three square miles. So that makes them very vulnerable to habitat loss.
Can you describe some of the campaign's successes? Any rediscoveries or new species?
We found two new species in Colombia. My favorite is one that looks a little like Monty Burns from The Simpsons. He had a pointy nose, and after the frog was discovered, I made that comparison. And people picked it up as the new Monty Burns toad.
Haiti is another. We rediscovered six species that hadn't been seen there in 20 years. In a one-week expedition we found these six species.
Wow, in one week ...
Yeah. With frogs it's all about timing—which is why so many remain lost—because you have to hit it at the right time. And usually it's in the rainy season, which from a logistical standpoint is a little risky. But then you're increasing your chances of finding all these species.
So what were some of the disappointments?
I invited a journalist called Lucy Cook to Colombia to search for the Mesopotamia beaked toad. So I really, really, really wanted to find that, but we didn't. That was a pretty crushing disappointment for me. Luckily we found the Monty Burns toad and another new species, which salvaged it.
I had a glimmer of hope that the Costa Rica golden toad might turn up. I had this eminent researcher in Costa Rica tell me that he thought it was still there. I was hoping that that might be one that would show up.
We didn't find one of our top ten for a couple of months. But it was exciting when we got one of our poster children.
Which one was that?
The first one was a harlequin frog from Ecuador. It was called the Rio Pescado Stubfoot toad—very beautiful yellow with black spots.
And then after that, we had the Borneo rainbow toad that hadn't been seen in 87 years. That blew me away. Researchers had spent eight months looking for it, so it was eight months of disappointment and then this incredible rush of excitement.
Shouldn't we be concentrating our efforts on saving the frogs that we know are there?
It's important to realize it's not a zero sum game. So yes, we need to be focusing on ones that are there, but it's harder sometimes to raise awareness and support for ones that are there. The goal of the search for lost frogs was to tell stories that would engage people that may not otherwise care. And I think that's where it succeeded.
If you consider how much goes into protecting the panda, which is there, it's not very effective. It's still declining, and many people would say it's not a good return on investment. More goes into that one species than goes into this entire class of 7,000 amphibian species.
But you can't simply say to people, oh, put your money here. The reason they put their money into pandas is because it resonates with them.
Focusing on pandas, I get it. But if the panda were to disappear, how much would the world change? As opposed to if the frogs were to disappear, I think the world would change more significantly.
Frogs play a very vital role. They eat insects that feed on our crops, the mosquitoes that are disease vectors, and they regulate nutrients. They form a link between water and the land.
So losing a frog is like losing two species, because you lose a tadpole, which is regulating algae in the water, and you lose the frog, which is eating insects on land.
And because they have this moist, permeable skin, they need to protect themselves: So they produce many compounds that actually have a lot of medicinal properties. They found a painkiller in one frog that's 200 times more potent than morphine and doesn't seem to have side effects. Frogs are a living library of these compounds.
I got fascinated by amphibians before I knew any of these things—they opened my mind to scientific inquiry. They were more closely woven into my life than pandas or polar bears.
I've never seen a panda in the wild—I don't think I ever will. So they're more abstract, whereas frogs are in all of our backyards. They provide the opportunity for our children and our children's children to learn and to be curious about the natural world.
And that's what they were to me. I know that my childhood would have been much less colorful without frogs. And I want my son to have that opportunity to explore and fish for tadpoles. And I think that's how the world will change for me if frogs were to disappear. The world would be a less rich place.
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