The starry night harlequin toad, thought to be extinct 30 years ago, has been rediscovered in Columbia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain ranges.
The amphibian, which is just two inches in size, with stunning black skin with white spots is only found in that region and its name itself is accredited to the clear, dark skies that we can see from the mountain range.
Lina Valencia, conservation officer for Global Wildlife Conservation, mentioned that the sight of these frogs reminds us of the night sky with the black background and the shiny white spots that resembles stars.
The indigenous Arhuaco community of Sogrome were instrumental in highlighting the existence of this species to the scientists due to which they were able to conduct research on them.
Biologists for several decades have feared that these toads have also fallen prey to the fungus chytrid, that’s known for decimating around 80 species of the harlequin toads out of the 96 species in the Genus Atelopus, something akin to an amphibian apocalypse.
Valencia also noted that this might be the first vertebrate genus to go extinct if we don’t take any action.
This resurgence of these tiny species in Columbia is not the first one as biologists have rediscovered other harlequin toad species at other locations like the Costa Rican variable harlequin toad in 2013, the Azuay stubfoot toad in 2015 and the long nose harlequin frog in 2016.
Richards-Zawacki points out that the preponderance of these findings could be attributed to the increased efforts in searching for them and also because these amphibians survived the chytrid decimation and have rebounded back.
The story of how these starry night toads were discovered is an inspirational and a spiritual one.
Ruperto Chaparro Villafana, a self-described conservationist who lives in Sogrome, was privy to the fact that there were these starry night harlequin toads still extant in the streams close to his community and considers their habitat as a temple as the Sogrome community has a special relationship with these toads, which they call locally as gouna.
For many generations, the Arhuaco community has listened to the sounds of these toads which informs them when to plant crops or to perform spiritual ceremonies. Scientists also back up their claim and say that this species is a good indicator of the ecosystem’s health.
Initially the decision to promulgate the existence of the species to the outside world was met with resistance, however the community leaders, called mamos, acquiesced to the request and allowed Ruperto to share the photos of these creatures with Fundacion Atelopus, a Columbian Conservation organization, in 2016.
The decision to allow scientists to explore the region came after 4 years of deliberation after their photos were initially released to the Fundacion Atelopus, and as a way to gain their trust, the scientists left their camera and equipment at home.
Jefferson Villalba, co-founder and president of Fundacion Atelopus, expressed his exultation when they discovered that the species was still alive.
Once the relationship between scientists and the local community grew, they were then allowed to take photographs of them. The scientists have expressed their goal to integrate their scientific knowledge along with their cultural knowledge to boost conservation efforts of the species.
Conservation organizations are also working closely with the indigenous people showing them how to monitor trends like population dynamics and morphology of the species.
This species is also used as a model for other larger conservation efforts and programs like Amas la Sierra.