Jewels of the Neotropics
Across the Neotropics—from Costa Rica in the north, to Bolivia in the south, and in nine countries in between—the forests are speckled with the colors of the rainbow. This is thanks to a diverse and vibrant group of amphibians called harlequin toads. These beautiful and charismatic toads come in orange, green, yellow, brown, black and sometimes even purple, earning them the nickname “clown frogs.”
Harlequin toads are committed breeders, often spending weeks in amplexus (the frog breeding hug), during which time the males forgo food and can lose up to 30% of their body weight on this “love diet.” During the breeding season, they come down to the riverbanks to woo potential mates, and some species even wave “Yoo-hoo!” across the water to catch the attention of female toads.
In some places, harlequin toads have been imbued with tremendous cultural value. In Panama, the striking Panamanian Golden Toad (Atelopus zeteki) is the national animal, found on lottery tickets and artwork in markets, and celebrated once a year through a government decree that declared Panamanian Golden Toad Day every Aug. 14. Harlequin toads also have cultural significance for some Indigenous communities, including those in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, who consider frogs to be a symbol of fertility and ecosystem health. Outside of these examples, however, harlequin toads receive little public attention but are among the most imperiled species in the world, like many of the other species that Re:wild works to save. Read more in the English or Spanish version of our Harlequin Toad Fact Sheet.
Despite their important role in cultures across the Neotropics, and their vital role in the ecosystems in which they live (including as indicators of water quality), entire species of harlequin toads started vanishing in the mid ‘80s, shocking biologists and spurring conservationists to action. A deadly infectious disease called chytridiomycosis (chytrid for short) had begun its spread through the Neotropics—and continues its destruction today. Chytridiomycosis affects the skin and prevents frogs from being able to “drink” water and breathe through their skin. It also absorbs salts, ultimately resulting in what is akin to a heart attack in the animals it infects.
This pathogen, combined with habitat destruction and degradation, introduction of invasive species such as Rainbow Trout, and the effects of climate change, has left 78 of the 98 harlequin toad species Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct or, like the Panamanian Golden Toad, Extinct in the wild according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. As of 2018, 37 harlequin toad species had disappeared from their known homes and have not been seen since the early 2000s, despite efforts to find them.
Most harlequin toads live along mid-to-high elevation streams—a habitat commonly associated with amphibian declines. Although harlequin toads are among the most threatened group of amphibians in the world, some species have proven to be resilient against all odds. Researchers in Ecuador rediscovered the Mindo Harlequin Toad, a species lost to science for more than 30 years, while another team in Bolivia rediscovered the Tricolor Harlequin Toad, lost since 2003. Another team in Panama found that some of the frog species most susceptible to chytrid have developed better defenses to fight the disease and as a result have started to rebound even after biologists feared they may be extinct.
The Atelopus Survival Initiative
To ensure we don’t lose these jewels forever, Re:wild spearheads efforts to develop and foster a coordinated regional harlequin toad conservation network, in partnership with the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group, Amphibian Survival Alliance, Amphibian Ark, and others. The network includes national and international conservation groups, zoos, captive breeding centers, academic institutions, governments and local communities working together to implement substantial, long-term, range-wide conservation measures for this unique group of amphibians. The Atelopus Survival Initiative and its members developed the Harlequin Toad Regional Action Plan, the first comprehensive strategy to save harlequin toads.
Together, we are working to:
Unite and mobilize the harlequin toad community into a collaborative network.
Develop a coordinated, standardized and long-term conservation strategy to ensure harlequin toad survival.
Identify and implement priority actions collectively at the local, national and international level to save this group of amphibians across the range countries in a way that is cost-effective.
Promote the conservation of harlequin toads through education and communication campaigns.
Provide capacity building and training to herpetologists and amphibian conservationists.
Elevate harlequin toads as a flagship for conservation in the region to spark government support.
Expand conservation breeding programs in the region to establish insurance populations in human care with the explicit aim of rewilding adult frogs.
Local Action for Global Impact
As part of the Atelopus Survival Initiative, Re:wild has partnered with Fundación Atelopus, the Colombian Herpetological Society, Wildlife Conservation Society and Parque Explora to ensure the survival of harlequin toads in Colombia, the country with the highest number of harlequin toads in the world. We can help maintain healthy amphibian populations and critical habitats by monitoring their populations and establishing conservation actions through community-based solutions. As a flagship project, we are working with Fundación Atelopus to ensure the survival of the last surviving high-elevation harlequin toad populations in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
In these ways, Re:wild and partners hope to reduce the drivers of harlequin toad declines, increase the amount of harlequin toad habitat that is protected across the Neotropics, and build local capacity for the long-term conservation of these amphibians. Protecting harlequin toad habitat will also benefit those amphibians and additional species that share their home, the ecosystems in which they live, and ultimately all life on Earth.