Christmas arrives early: long lost Mindo Harlequin-Toad hops back from extinction

Articles | News

By Tropical Herping. April 2020.

It is green and red with white speckles that resemble snowflakes, has hands in the form of mittens, and most importantly has not been seen alive since 1989… until now.

Atelopus mindoensis

Living juvenile of Atelopus mindoensis, first one seen in over three decades. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

It is the Mindo Harlequin-Toad (Atelopus mindoensis), a “Christmas-colored” toad that was once the living emblem of Mindo, a picturesque cloudforest town in northwestern Ecuador.

The rediscovery, which was announced in a study published today in the journal Herpetology Notes, is considered a “miracle” of nature’s resilience. Among all the extinct harlequin toads (genus Atelopus) in Ecuador, the Mindo Harlequin-Toad was the one dubbed most unlikely to be rediscovered, since the cloudforests where it lives are the most thoroughly-documented in the country, and no-one had seen them in 30 years.

Atelopus mindoensis

Adult male of Atelopus mindoensis, first one seen in over three decades. Photo by Jose Vieira.

“The moment I saw that small green toad, I instantly recognized it was something that would surprise the scientific community” says César Barrio-Amorós, lead author of the study and one of the biologists that found the toad. “The discovery of this relict population provides a unique opportunity to monitor and study the species in order to know why it declined.”

See this video of the toad and its habitat, put together by Jorge Castillo with clips from Jose Vieira, Alejandro Arteaga, and Eric Osterman.

“Recently, several species of harlequin toads have hopped back from extinction. Possibly, what we are seeing are low-density relict populations that have become resistant to chytridiomycosis,” says Barrio-Amorós.

How can you help the Mindo Harlequin-Toad?

  1. Eat organic food to indirectly promote the reduction of pesticide use.
  2. Do your part to keep water sources clean and free of soap and detergent.
  3. Wash your footwear with a bleach solution before visiting a cloudforest stream to avoid the spread of diseases.
  4. If you find a harlequin toad, avoid sharing the specific locality on social media, as poachers or illegal collectors of wildlife may use them.
  5. Educate yourself and your family about amphibians and spread the passion about them (check out our book and our poster about frogs and toads of Mindo).
  6. Support Tropical Herping’s 2020 Atelopus exploratory and “rescue” expeditions (here's how).

Fortunately, there seems to be hope for this particular species. The relict population was found in a privately-owned cloudforest reserve having pristine streams where neither the deadly fungus nor predatory trouts have been recorded.

Atelopus mindoensis

Adult male of Atelopus mindoensis, first one seen in over three decades. Photo by Jose Vieira.

Although it seems like Christmas has arrived early for the cloudforests of Mindo, it is too soon to celebrate. The use of pesticides upstream of where the toads were found, the arrival of infectious diseases spread by humans, and the unexpected introduction of trout (all extremely likely scenarios), can wreak havoc on this last unique population, thereby wiping out the Mindo Harlequin-Toad’s last chance of surviving into the future.

Atelopus mindoensis

Adult male of Atelopus mindoensis, first one seen in over three decades. Photo by Jose Vieira.

Nature has given us a second chance to save Atelopus mindoensis from extinction, and it is in the hand of all of us to make that a reality.

Team effort for the toads:

To save the Mindo Harlequin-Toad from extinction, Tropical Herping has joined forces with Centro Jambatu to start a long-term project to monitor the health of the population as well as to establish a “backup” ex-situ colony in case the wild population disappears.

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