As CI launches our “Search for the Lost Frogs” campaign, Amphibian Conservation Officer Robin Moore reflects on how he first became interested in amphibians – and why these species are so important to protect. (This text has been adapted from the 2009 book “Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with Reptiles and Amphibians“. The book was edited by Jamie K. Reaser.)
“I’m going to catch amphibians!” I announced to my parents from the kitchen doorway. My backpack bulged with containers of every size and shape imaginable, and my feet rattled in gum boots two sizes too large. I was seven and would, apparently, grow into them. I didn’t have time to explain right now. We had been on vacation for almost a whole hour and I had animals to discover!
Drumbeg is a sleepy village on the west coast of Scotland, hidden among bleak, heather-clad mountains that rise magnificently into the clouds. As far as I was concerned we had traveled to the other ends of the Earth from our home in Edinburgh. I felt a surge of excitement at this wild, unexplored world.
I careered down the rocky hill towards the peat bogs that carpeted the low ground between the hills.. When I reached the bog I stopped in the middle and stood motionless to survey the scene.
As I caught my breath a small creature pierced the stillness, treating itself to a large gulp of air before darting back down in a flash of orange and white. I froze with excitement, realizing what the creature must be: a newt! I had read about them and seen pictures, but this was my first one in the flesh. I had to catch it!
My plan was simple: I would wait, motionless, until it surfaced again. A minute passed. Five minutes. Then suddenly, out of the brown depths, it appeared, gracefully undulating upwards. I lunged toward it; but my legs folded under me, launching my upper body unwillingly into the brown water.
Lying face down in the bog, I felt the creature brush my submerged right hand. I closed my hand around it, and felt it squirm to escape my firm grasp – I had it!
The newt’s bulging eyes and smooth, delicate skin bore more than a passing resemblance to a frog; but, unlike a frog, the newt was long and slender and adorned with a graceful tail. I placed it on my hand and watched it amble clumsily in a bid to return to the water.
I named him Norman. I could tell it was a ‘he’ because Norman was decked out in dapper mating regalia. He displayed an impressive crest along his spine and his tail was tapered to flicker provocatively as he danced to attract a mate. How the lady newts would adore him, wafting his irresistible scent in their direction!
I had no time to waste: I had to introduce him to the rest of the family. I hurriedly fetched a jam jar from my backpack, filled it with water and plopped Norman inside.
I trotted back to the house as fast as I could, clutching the prized jar as if it were the egg of a dodo. I burst into the living room to find my grandparents, parents and brothers relaxing over a cup of tea and the weekend papers. I plonked Norman’s jar onto the coffee table and exclaimed, “Look what I found! Have you ever seen anything like it?”
To say my excitement wasn’t shared by the rest of the room would be an understatement, as all eyes fixed me with looks that ranged from sheer horror to utter bewilderment at my disheveled appearance. Nobody paid the slightest attention to our new house guest. Eventually my mother broke the silence. “Can we move it from the table where we eat our food?” I decided that engaging the interest of my family was going to take time.
Over the next ten years or so we visited Drumbeg every summer. My appetite for discovery never waned and I continued to spend my waking hours delving into the peat bogs to catch frogs and newts.
Now, 25 years and many newts later, I remain utterly fascinated by amphibians – living relics of a time before we graced the planet with our presence. Only now it has gone beyond a mere passion; trying to save amphibians from the clutches of extinction is my career. As if instilling enthusiasm in my family for amphibians wasn’t challenging enough, I have taken on the daunting task of serving as a voice for a group of animals that are defenseless against our bid to destroy their, and our, life support system.
I have now traveled beyond the west coast of Scotland and developed an appreciation of how deeply engrained amphibians are in the fabric of global cultures. They serve repeatedly as auspicious totems of transformation, abundance and good luck. It shouldn’t be hard, therefore, to convince people that the world would be a darker, less colorful place without them. Sadly, however, many of us have become so disconnected with the natural world that we are too concerned with remembering to text our vote for the next American Idol to care about the frogs that are slowly blinking out of existence from our own back yards.
The connection between mass amphibian extinctions and our everyday lives is simple: these sensitive animals are signaling that the ecosystems we depend upon for fresh water, for clean air and food, are sick. Through their delicate skin, amphibians absorb everything we pump into their environment and they are simply the first to go. What will be next: Birds? Mammals? Us? The frogs are obliging us with an early warning, allowing us a chance to change our behavior before it is too late. The question is, are we going to stop and do something, or are we going to carry on as normal and let our children pick up the pieces?