Male golden toads (Incilius periglenes) gather for breeding. Photo © NOAA .
Today, we can observe with much optimism the existence of many conservation organizations dedicated to the survival of and research on amphibians, and the growing awareness of their vulnerabilities in the public sphere. Amphibians and their supporters have fought for years to reach this point, with ground still to cover, but what inspired the beginning of this movement? Perhaps the most compelling contributor to the establishment of the amphibian conservation movement was the golden toad (Incilius periglenes). The golden toad, so startlingly neon orange, surprised even expert herpetologists with its unique and stunning coloration when it was discovered as an endemic species in the tropical cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica in 19661. An “explosive breeder”, its diurnal breeding habits and massive groups of frantic, violent male competition for females during breeding season created a spectacle that was arguably the most unique anuran discovery of the late 20th century2. The toad’s tragic and sudden disappearance in the late 1980s was an even greater shock than its initial discovery. The golden toad, which existed as an abundant population of thousands of individuals in 1986, yielded populations in following years of just a handful of individuals until their complete disappearance by 19912.
The sudden disappearance of the golden toad shocked herpetologists worldwide, and pushed amphibian survivability research efforts forward. By 2005, it was clear that global climate change and habitat loss were key factors in amphibian decline, and the golden toad became a textbook example of the rapidity at which species can disappear3. Not only did it affect the scientific community, but its stunning features and tragic decline also effectively made the toad the “charismatic megafauna” of the amphibian world. A term usually reserved for large, cuddly or majestic species such as the giant panda or the Bengal tiger, whose endangerment evokes a sense of concern and sympathy among the general public that environmentalists can use to achieve conservation-based goals, the unforeseen disappearance of the impressively unique golden toad created an icon for amphibian conservation.
In addition to its global impact, the golden toad has a lasting impact on the area to which it was endemic: the small town of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Both the scientists studying the toad and the local community were devastated by the loss of the golden toad, and together they established a nature preserve surrounding the cloud forest that had been threatened by development, in an effort to preserve the remaining spectacular diversity of the system4. The toad shaped this community’s future, as its preserve is now one of the most revered ecotourist destinations in Central America.
Although it has been more than twenty years since the last golden toad was spotted, Monteverde continues to show its resolve and its dedication to this animal; herpetologists in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve still go searching off-trail for this species during its peak breeding times, a search which I had the privilege of joining as an ecology student studying abroad in Monteverde. We (obviously) did not find the golden toad when I joined their annual search in May 2013, but I did find that the dedication of the local herpetologists to this species was more than admirable, and understood more completely that the incredible diversity of the preserve would not have existed if not for the lasting impact of the Sapo Dorado (golden toad in Spanish).
While amphibian declines and disappearances were not and are not exclusive to Monteverde or to the golden toad, the toads’ striking appearance, unique behavior, and extremely sudden and unexpected decline pushed amphibian conservation and research efforts over the edge, establishing a momentum toward protecting similarly vulnerable and valuable species. These efforts have been particularly important with similarly dire situations in many other species in the diversity-laden Latin America5. Amphibian conservation allows for the preservation of not only the amphibian diversity, but also of the diversity of their entire habitat, as their survival depends on the unique balance of their ecosystem. As we continue on in the fight for amphibian survival, it’s valuable to recognize where this movement found its founding mascot, and what impact a single species can have on the world. While the golden toad may be gone for good, it is because of its stunning entry and equally stunning exit that we can consider ourselves this far in amphibian conservation efforts.
- Savage, Jay M. An Extraordinary New Toad (Bufo) From Costa Rica. Revisita de Biologia Tropical. 2002, vol.50.
- Pounds, Alan, et.al. (2006), Widespread Amphibian Extinctions from Epidemic Disease Driven by Global Warming. Nature 439: 161-67.
- Young, B. E., et.al. (2001), Population Declines and Priorities for Amphibian Conservation in Latin America. Conservation Biology, 15: 1213–1223.
Mary Jade Farruggia, a lifelong amphibian lover, is on the path to a career in herpetology research and conservation. She is a senior undergraduate student in Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution at the University of California, San Diego with a minor in music. After studying abroad in Costa Rica as a sophomore, where she studied Cane Toad behavior, tropical biology, and jungle exploring, she left her heart in the rainforest and solidified her passion for amphibians. From sharing her love for outdoor ecology as a science program leader for the Girl Scouts, to exploring decades of collections as a herpetology intern at the San Diego Natural History Museum, Mary Jade seeks to share her excitement for amphibian conservation through many avenues, including the ASA!