Once, in the middle of a coffee table, sat a jar — plopped down for an entire family to see. The jar contained a recently captured, bug-eyed, smooth-skinned newt, named "Norman" by his delighted child capturer.
Today, that child is Dr. Robin Moore, Conservation International's Amphibian Conservation Officer — and anyone who believed back in Moore's newt-hunting days that he would follow any other career path would have been greatly mistaken.
Moore grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, part of a family that took vacations to the rugged, heather-clad mountains of the Scottish highlands. His childhood was spent chasing frogs and newts — and when Moore wasn't out capturing creatures, he says, he was "transfixed to any BBC production narrated by David Attenborough," the famed naturalist whose book The Living Planet also grabbed Moore's attention.
But it was a trip to Cameroon at the age of 20, where he spent two months in the rainforest studying chameleons, that really opened Moore's eyes to the incredible diversity of the tropics — and also, he says, to the "incredible and unrelenting threats to these incredible places and species."
"This set my trajectory — doing anything else with my life was never an option," Moore says.
READ MORE: Learn about Robin Moore's lifelong passion for amphibians.
Moore followed his passion for amphibians by completing a degree in zoology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, a masters of research in ecology and environmental management from the University of York, and a doctoral degree in biodiversity conservation from the University of Kent. He also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of South Florida, developing and teaching a new course in tropical conservation and ecology — the first undergraduate course at USF that focused heavily on conservation.
Moore has been with CI since 2005, supporting efforts to protect amphibians and their critical habitats around the world by working with CI's field programs and local partners. Additionally, he coordinates the activities of the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group, an organization of amphibian experts around the world.
What's Good for Frogs is Also Good for People
Amphibians exhibit some of the most diverse features of any species groups, from polka dots or striped markings to skin of every color imaginable. This diversity is part of the fascination with amphibians.
But aside from their aesthetic value, frogs play a much more important role than many realize to the survival and well-being of people — and the planet as a whole. Moore's admiration and respect for amphibians is apparent as he explains this important link.
"Amphibians are bellwethers of ecosystem health, and often indicate clean fresh water," he says. "They provide direct services such as regulating water quality. Studies in Central America have directly linked the removal of amphibians to increased algal blooms in streams. When you remove amphibians, snakes disappear, algae grows, sediments accumulate and affect water quality. We don't know yet how many of these changes are irrevocable."
Amphibians also play a pivotal role in monitoring environmental health on a larger, global scale. They're what scientists call an "indicator group" in monitoring the planet's environmental well-being. By monitoring amphibian populations, Moore provides information essential to helping scientists figure out how to manage protected areas in the face of "incipient threats" such as climate change. With the help of a MacArthur Foundation grant, Moore and partners have begun to monitor the affects of climate change on amphibians in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Madagascar and Haiti.
Additionally, amphibians play a direct role in supporting agriculture and regulating disease control. They feed on insects, including mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever, and crop pests.
And they also, Moore says, provide a suite of biomedical properties used by indigenous communities and pharmaceutical companies alike — putting amphibians in a central role in the fight for better human health. One Ecuadorian frog has skin that contains a painkiller 200 times more potent than morphine, for example. Other frogs that have compounds in their skin that could block HIV infection or treat skin cancer. By safeguarding amphibians, Moore explains, we are ensuring that these services are maintained.
Given the multiple roles that amphibians play in preserving our environment, not to mention educating us about it, Moore says that we can adopt them as a "flagship" group that helps promote the conservation of watersheds and forests.
There's urgency in this work. There are about 6,000 known amphibian species, with speculation that the figure could be closer to 10,000. And finding new species of amphibian continually fascinates Moore.
LEARN MORE: Search for 'Lost' Frogs Leads to Three New Amphibian Treasures
But he also races to save the recognized species that are being threatened. An astounding 1 in 3 amphibian species is threatened with extinction.
The "Search for Lost Frogs" & Hope for Haiti
To find new species and to monitor the well-being of known ones, Moore, along with the CI communications team, spearheaded the "Search for Lost Frogs" campaign that began in August 2010. The campaign coordinated the efforts of 33 teams of scientists in 19 countries in an effort to find amphibians not seen in over a decade.
"I believe that nothing engages the worldwide public more than visually driven stories of 'lost' and new species," Moore says. "This campaign achieved global visibility and provided a platform for communicating more complex messages about the connection between ecosystems and people."
One of the countries included in the Search for Lost Frogs is Haiti, a country that has been in the global spotlight since a devastating earthquake in 2010. Moore recalls that "arriving into Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake was a harrowing experience. It was hard to talk about conservation at a time like this — but necessary. It is important to dispel the myth that development and conservation are mutually exclusive and to use this window of opportunity, when the eyes of the world are on Haiti, to make a change to a fundamentally flawed system.
VIDEO: Robin Moore Rediscovers Lost Amphibians of Haiti
"It is important we convey to the people in Haiti that their problems are exacerbated by environmental degradation and [that] through conservation and restoration, we can provide a lifeline to a sustainable future. I have never faced such a challenging and daunting task."
On a recent expedition, Moore's team saw of 25 of Haiti's 49 known native frog species, six of which hadn't been seen in close to two decades. This prompts Moore and others to find great hope in Haiti.
IN DEPTH: Hope for Haiti
"The press surrounding the rediscoveries in Haiti is a good example of couching a complex message that conveys the benefits of conservation for humans in an engaging story of rediscovery and hope," Moore says. "While the real message is that we need to save Haiti's last forests and the services they provide before it is too late, we used the hook of the rediscovered frogs to deliver this message."
One challenge Moore faces is convincing people there is still anything worth saving. The Search for Lost Frogs helped to portray what stands to be lost. Less than 2% of Haiti's forest remains, but within that area lies a small patch of cloud forest that provides many critical ecosystem services. With the MacArthur-funded grant, Moore hopes to help local communities protect the remaining cloud forest and the services it provides.
LEARN MORE: The Search for Lost Frogs
One tool in Moore's box is the use of photography and video, which he says can be a powerful force for conservation. He's an associate with the International League of Conservation Photographers, an organization that he describes as "incredible."
"I have found a vehicle for really using photography to promote conservation and catalyze change," Moore says.
Inspired by the Past as Well as the Present
When he's not saving frogs or spreading critical messages about the environment and human health, Moore enjoys cycling and playing football — or, as he says, "Sorry, soccer!" He also maintains a positive outlook despite the many struggles of his work, a characteristic he ascribes to his maternal grandparents, who met during World War II. Through turmoil and years separated in POW camps, they "shunned bitterness, believing that hatred corrodes," and went on to find happiness and a long-lived life together.
"I am very lucky to be surrounded by inspirational people," Moore says of his CI colleagues. "The energy at CI is infectious. I am inspired by the people who are doing the important work on the ground — the people who, with so little, have achieved so much. People who have gone against the grain to protect the resources that their neighbors exploit because it is their home. These are the people who really inspire me daily, and being able to support these people and their efforts is what really keeps me motivated."
Moore remains positive about finding new species of amphibians and protecting the ones still in existence, despite the obstacles that amphibians have in order to continue their survival. It seems only natural that amphibians can be a beacon of hope toward continued conservation — and the improvement of the well-being of people.
LEARN MORE: Ask A Scientist - Amphibian Q&A with Dr. Robin Moore