Biologists have seen the Starry Night Harlequin Toad for the first time in almost three decades, after it had been presumed extinct. Although, judging by its stunning black-and-white-spotted appearance, it’s hard to see how it remained so elusive for all these years.
The long-lost toad was recently documented on Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the tallest coastal mountain range on Earth, by a team of researchers from the NGO Fundación Atelopus, partners with Global Wildlife Conservation, and the indigenous Arhuaco people of the Sogrome community.
The last time this handsome fella was scientifically observed was back in 1991, causing many to fear it had slipped into extinction as the result of a deadly fungal pathogen that's wiped out many of its genera. However, the local Sogrome community was well aware that the species was alive and kicking. The Arhuaco people place a huge amount of spiritual and cultural significance onto the toad, which they call "gouna". The toads are an excellent barometer of the environmental well-being of the habitat they both share, and the people and amphibians have lived in harmony and been in "dialogue" for generations.
“The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a place that we consider sacred, and harlequin toads are guardians of water and symbols of fertility,” said Kaneymaku Suarez Chaparro, a member of the Sogrome community and a biology student at the Francisco José de Cladas District University, in an emailed statement.
After catching word of the toads’ presence in the area, biologists from Fundación Atelopus spend four years in dialogue with the Sogrome and their spiritual leaders to have access to study them. Aided by the Sogrome's deep knowledge of the ecosystem, the scientists were eventually able to complete the 8-hour treck up this sacred mountain and track down and (after an initial visit with no cameras to "test" their trustworthiness) photograph the toad, with the Arhuaco’s blessing.
"Now we have a great opportunity to bring together two worldviews for the protection and preservation of the Sierra species: the Western scientific knowledge and the indigenous scientific, cultural and spiritual knowledge,” Suarez Chaparro said.
All in all, the team documented at least 30 individual Starry Night Harlequin Toads (Atelopus aryescue) – not bad for a species that many feared was long-gone.
“This is a powerful story about how working with indigenous and local communities can help us not just find species lost to science, but better understand how some species are surviving and how we can conserve the natural world in a way that connects spiritual and cultural knowledge,” said Lina Valencia, Colombia conservation officer at Global Wildlife Conservation.
“We are tremendously grateful to the Arhuaco people for giving us this opportunity to work with them.”
However, the toad’s battle is not won yet. While the researchers were surprised to find such a substantial population, this genus of toad continues to face the mounting threats of infectious disease, habitat destruction, invasive species, and climate change. At least 80 of the 96 known harlequin toad species are endangered, critically endangered, or extinct in the wild, according to the IUCN Red List.
Despite the challenge ahead, the researchers sincerely believe the scientific rediscovery of the starry night harlequin toad is certainly one of optimism and hope.
“We were hoping to find one individual of the starry night harlequin toad, and to our great surprise we found a population of 30 individuals. We were full of joy and hope as we had the chance to observe a healthy population from a genus for which very few species remain,” said Fundación Atelopus vice president and biologist José Luis Pérez-González.
"It is an incredible honor to be entrusted with the story of the starry night harlequin toad and the story of the Sogrome community’s relationship with it.”