Atelopus: Vanishing Amphibian Beauties

The Limosa Harlequin Frog (Atelopus limosus), one of several species being bred in captivity by the Panama Amphibian Rescue Conservation Project

Atelopus is a fairly large genus of “true toads” that are distributed throughout Central and South America. These frogs are brilliantly colored, usually diurnal (active during the day) and secrete toxins from their skin like most other toads. Unlike toads of the genus Rhinella, Bufo or Anaxyrus, however, these little frogs do not typically have enlarged parotoid glands with which to deliver poison, or warty skin. In general, toads can be differentiated from most frogs by their terrestrial habits and dry skin. Atelopus species are especially distinctive from other frogs in their small size, bright colors, and lack of eardrums. Many species of Atelopus live by the sides of streams, which are very noisy environments, so males have developed hand-waving behaviors to communicate with females. They also vocalize and can still pinpoint where sounds are coming from using their inner ears.

Panamanian Golden Frog (Atelopus zeteki) exhibiting hand waving behavior.

Unfortunately, these gorgeous little amphibians are currently becoming extinct at a dangerously fast rate. The Panamanian Golden Frog (Atelopus zeteki), the most poisonous of the Atelopus species, is already thought to be extinct in the wild, and other Atelopus species are quickly following. Like many other species of tropical frogs, these delicate beauties are rare and therefore it is hard to quantify their decline in many instances, since not enough frogs can be found for adequate population data. However, with what information there is on Atelopus species, it is clear that they are being negatively affected by the chytrid fungus and by loss of their habitats. Atelopus zeteki in particular has been shown to experience mortality (death) when exposed to zoospores of the chytrid fungus, and their habitat in Panama is rapidly disappearing as more and more rainforest is destroyed to make room for industry. Time may be running out for these little gems of the rainforest. However, all hope is not lost, since conservation efforts like PARC (Panama Amphibian Rescue Conservation), and many national zoos have begun breeding rare Atelopus species in captivity. By establishing reserves of captive breeding Atelopus frogs, these institutions ensure the future of these species, although ultimately it is the continued existence of their habitat that will dictate whether these frogs make it to the next century.


Photos by Brian Gratwicke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


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