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Jewels of the Neotropics

Across Central and South America—from Costa Rica in the north, to Bolivia in the south, and in nine countries in between—the streams and 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, red, green, yellow, brown, black and sometimes even purple, earning them the nickname “clown frogs.”

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. more in the English or Spanish version of our Harlequin Toad Fact Sheet.

Atelopus spurrelli. (Photo by Jaime Culebras/Photo Wildlife Tours)

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 ultimately results in what is akin to a heart attack in the animals it infects.

Photo by Jaime Culebras

This pathogen, combined with habitat destruction and degradation, introduction of invasive species such as Rainbow Trout, and the effects of climate change, has left 83 percent of the 94 harlequin toad species assessed by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species threatened with extinction. About 40% of Atelopus species have disappeared from their known homes and have not been seen since the early 2000s, despite great efforts to find them.

Geographical range

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

Members of the Atelopus Survival Initiative at a workshop in Medellín, Colombia.
Members of the Atelopus Survival Initiative at a workshop in Medellín, Colombia.

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 many others. The Atelopus Survival Initiative includes national and international conservation groups, zoos, captive breeding centers, academic institutions, governments and local and Indigneous communities working together to implement substantial, long-term, range-wide conservation measures for this unique group of amphibians. The initiative and its members developed the Harlequin Toad Conservation Action Plan (HarleCAP), the first comprehensive strategy to save harlequin toads.

Starry Night Harlequin Toad (Atelopus aryescue). (Photo courtesy of Fundación Atelopus)

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.

Re:wild's Kelsey Neam with a harlequin toad in Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

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.

Photo by Jaime Culebras

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.

The Fundación Atelopus team monitoring harlequin toads in the Sierra Nevada de Santa marta.

Top photo by Jaime Culebras/Photo Wildlife Tours

Wild Facts

  • Male harlequin toads can lose up to 30% of body weight while breeding.

  • Harlequin toads walk or hop short distances, instead of leaping.

  • Not all toads are warty. Harlequin toads are smooth-skinned.

  • During the breeding season, harlequin toads come down to the riverbanks to woo potential mates, and some even wave “Yoo-hoo!” to catch the attention of female toads.

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Solutions

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the interrelated crises of wildlife extinctions, climate change and pandemics. Re:wild works with local and Indigenous communities, conservation partners, governments and others to solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Our harlequin toad conservation approaches include any combination of the following solutions:

Protected Area Creation

Identifying and prioritizing wildlands in need of increased protection status, including establishing new protected and conserved areas, Indigenous-managed territories, and private protected areas in these places.

conservation breeding, translocations and reintroductions

Creating insurance populations to prevent extinction and active management of wildlife populations to help restore them to healthy and self-sustainable numbers across their natural range.

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protected area management

Improving the way protected and conserved areas are managed—involving communities, Indigenous peoples, sociology, economics, business management, and wildlife crime prevention—to ensure a safer future for biodiversity and local communities.

Partnering with Indigenous Peoples

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge, practices and values to support Indigenous peoples in protecting and managing their lands and natural resources.

Cultivating Conservation Leaders

Partnering with the next generation, passionate leaders, communities and organizations all over the world to ensure they have the enabling conditions, resources and expertise they need to most effectively protect and manage wildlife and wildlands.

Exploration

Exploring some of the most remote corners of our planet to discover how and where we can have the biggest impact on imperiled species and places.

# of species:

98

# of focal species:

12

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