Jewels
of the neotropics

Jaime Culebras / Photo Wildlife Tours

Across the Neotropics, the forests are speckled with the colors of the rainbow thanks to a diverse and vibrant group of amphibians called harlequin toads. These beautiful and charismatic animals, also known by scientists as Atelopus, got their name from their beautiful coloration.

Harlequin toads can be found from Costa Rica in the north to Bolivia in the south, from Ecuador in the west to French Guiana in the east, and in seven countries in between. They live in a diverse array of habitats, from tropical wet forests along the Pacific coast and the Amazon basin to the montane and paramos regions of the Andes.

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In some places, harlequin toads have been imbued with tremendous cultural value.

In Panama, the striking Panamanian Golden Toad is the national animal, found on lottery tickets and artwork in markets, and celebrated annually by government decree on Panamanian Golden Toad Day. 

Harlequin toads also have cultural significance for some Indigenous communities. In Ecuador, the Indigenous Kichwa people use live harlequin toads or “jambato” to cure warts, scabies and headaches.

 

The Arhuaco in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, consider harlequin toads or “gouna” to be a symbol of fertility and ecosystem health.

Cool facts

  • They are super colorful: from bright red to yellow, to even purple, green and pink, harlequin toads come in an array of colors. One of nature’s most impressive color palettes!

  • They are hyper diverse: around 100 species of harlequin toads can be found from sea level forests, up to high-altitude ecosystems like snow line paramos in the Andes (4500 meters).

  • They are passionate lovers: in beautiful tropical streams, some harlequin toads can spend weeks in amplexus (the frog breeding hug) during which the males forgo food and can lose up to 30% of their body weight!

  • They say wave hello: harlequin toads often wave their hands to communicate with each other.

  • They are hard to spot: harlequin toads are masters at hiding in their habitat, but if you are lucky, during their breeding season you will see creeks and streams covered in them.

  • They are vital for the environment: the presence of harlequin toads is a clear indicator of the health of their habitat, especially the quality of the water of the creeks they use to reproduce.

Jaime Culebras / Photo Wildlife Tours

Photos by Jaime Culebras / Photo Wildlife Tours

Harlequin toads are one of the most threatened groups of amphibians in the world.

More than 75% of harlequin toads are threatened with extinction and 4 species are Extinct. As of 2021, 40 species have disappeared from their known homes and have not been seen since the early 2000s, despite efforts to find them. Since the 1980s, a deadly infectious disease called chytridiomycosis has been affecting species through the Neotropics.

 

This pandemic, combined with habitat destruction and degradation, and the introduction of invasive species such as Rainbow Trout, plus the effects of climate change, are putting harlequin toads on the brink of extinction.

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Despite their beauty and threat of extinction, harlequin toads are unknown to most people and only a few populations have been studied in detail. In the past there has been a lack of collaboration and information exchange among researchers and conservationists and without a coordinated response of the most effective actions, the fate of these animals is uncertain.

But there is hope!

 

We have formed the Atelopus Survival Initiative to connect people across the Neotropics and around the world to coordinate actions to save these species. By bringing together decades of experience and passion for harlequin toads, the Atelopus Survival Initiative is finding innovative ways to combat threats, protect and restore forests and watersheds, create and maintain conservation breeding programs, and search for “lost” harlequin toads.