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Lost-and-found: Longnose Harlequin Toads remain suspended in a state of emergency

Six years after their miraculous rediscovery, Longnose Harlequin Toads remain in limbo as the only place they call home is threatened by mining

By Milo Putnam on March 23, 2022   duration

Photo by Jaime Culebras
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[En Español]

10. That’s less than the number of Kardashians to keep up with. That’s less than the number of times you’ve likely called your mom this month. And 10 is definitely (should be?) less than the number of emojis you’ll use today. Ten is a tiny number. 

Ten is especially dismal when it is the sum of an entire species left in the wild.

Only 10 adult Longnose Harlequin Toads remain in the wild of Ecuador’s Intag Valley. But for a species that was once considered extinct, this bleak number is in fact a sign of recovery. Longnose Harlequin Toads were largely wiped out in the late 1980s by climate change and a deadly disease caused by the chytrid fungus. But a twist of fate brought these striking, yellow-spotted toads ‘back from the dead.’

Photo by Gustavo Pazmiño

In March of 2016, that tragedy unexpectedly turned to optimism as four adult Longnose Harlequin Toads were rediscovered in Intag Valley after disappearing for nearly three decades. These living, breathing parcels of hope represented the seemingly impossible. Following this rediscovery, the Jambatu Amphibian Research and Conservation Center in Ecuador led a rescue effort to bring these four precious toads into their conservation program with the hope of successfully breeding them in captivity and one day reintroducing this species back to the wild. 

“Jambatu Center is their emergency room,” says Andrea Terán-Valdez, collections manager for the Jambatu Center. “Amphibian species can hover here, away from the threats of the wild for as long as necessary, but we need to work in the wild too. They cannot be in an emergency room forever. We need to protect those ecosystems, and we need to preserve their habitats so we can reintroduce these species to the wild. Otherwise, our work here is useless.”

Dr. Luis Coloma looks in on a Longnose Harlequin Frog that his team brought into captivity for breeding at the Jambatu Research and Conservation Center. (Photo by Centro Jambatu/Fundación Otonga)

As a member of the Atelopus Survival Initiative and partner of Re:wild, the Jambatu Center is also sharing its findings and best practices with initiative members who are working to conserve other species of harlequin toads. About 40% of harlequin toad species have disappeared from their known homes and have not been seen since the early 2000s. A deadly pathogen, combined with habitat destruction and degradation, water pollution, the introduction of invasive species, and the effects of climate change has left 83 percent of the 94 known harlequin toad species threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 

Longnose Harlequin Toads surprised scientists when they reappeared after decades, but these toads are suspended in a state of emergency. Six years since their fateful rediscovery, they remain threatened by extractive industries driving destruction in their only wild home, the Intag Valley. For the past 30 years, this region has been the target of numerous copper mines, repeatedly putting the Longnose Harlequin Toad and the many other wildlife species it shares its home with in jeopardy. How much longer can these tiny amphibians dodge yet another possible onslaught?

The polluted waters of Intag's Junin River (Photo by Carlos Zorrilla)

“If you have a mining disaster in Intag Valley, we might not be able to go and rescue the few individual frogs that are left in the field,” says Terán-Valdez.

Ecuadorian amphibian ark

Ecuador ranks third in the world for amphibian diversity, and over 44% of these species are found nowhere else on Earth. Founded in 2011, Jambatu Center is working tirelessly to ensure these amphibians are not lost to extinction. Currently, the center cares for over 1,100 individuals that represent 30 different species of amphibians. Jambatu Center is the only place in the world attempting to breed Longnose Harlequin Toads. In fact, it is the only place, outside of the wild, these tiny toads even exist.

Biologists at Jambatu Center worked diligently to perfect the correct conditions in the breeding center to care for and breed the Longnose Harlequin Toad. Their original assurance population of just four adults has grown with the addition of tadpoles collected from Intag Valley. But even more significantly, following many attempts, they have successfully bred this species at the center, a world-first achievement. Jambatu has now successfully reproduced Longnose Harlequin Toad on two separate occasions, once in 2018 and a second in 2020, a cause for celebration for a species once thought extinct.

With those breeding achievements and the collection of additional tadpoles, the founding population of four has turned into today’s insurance population of 29 adult Longnose Harlequin Toads, thanks to the research and care of the Jambatu Center.

Reintroducing a lost species

Longnose Harlequin Toad habitat in Intag Valley (Photo by Lucas Bustamente)

The reality of returning the Longnose Harlequin Toad to the wild means there must be a wild to return them to. Intag Valley, a biodiversity hotspot in the Andes mountains, is the only home of this species. But the threats to this ecosystem seem insurmountable, considering the Llurimagua copper mine’s concession carves through the heart of Intag Valley. In a recent court case, a judge from Ecuador’s Cotacachi canton court ruled to allow copper mining in Intag Valley, despite the plaintiff’s argument that the concession violates the constitutional rights of local communities to consultation and the rights of nature. 

“The livelihoods and wellbeing of the communities in Intag depend on a conserved forest and healthy watersheds,” said Lina Valencia, Andean countries coordinator for Re:wild. “This mining concession will have detrimental effects to the forests, rivers and species that live there. Species don’t often get a second chance, especially harlequin toads. A mining concession would be disastrous for fragile species like the longnose harlequin toad.” 

Photo by Gustavo Pazmiño

In their astonishing journey back from extinction, Longnose Harlequin Toads have now become the symbol of a rallying cry against extractive development in these sacred cloud forests of Ecuador.

“If you don't fight, then you have already lost. We have to try. We have to keep on trying. We are doing our part, the community is doing their part, and we need the courts to honor the rights of nature,” says Terán-Valdez. “Otherwise, we will all lose.”

About the author

Milo Putnam

Milo is a communications specialist for Re:wild and has a true love of storytelling and creating compelling content that mobilizes action for our planet. He's always looking to uncover the next best story to engage others in discovering the natural world and helping to protect it in the process. When he's not crafting engaging content, Milo loves going on adventures near and far with his husband.

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