One of the world’s rarest toads has been bred in captivity for the first time, thanks to the scientists at Manchester Museum.
The critically endangered variable harlequin toad, Atelopus varius, lives deep in the central American rainforests of Panama and Costa Rica, breeding only in turbulent streams filled with stones and boulders on which they lay their eggs.
Scientists at the University of Manchester went to Santa Fe national park in Panama and recorded the conditions of the amphibians’ native habitat. They used the data to re-create the temperatures, water levels and water flow in captivity. Special lighting meant that a certain tropical alga, which the tadpoles feed on using specialised sucker-like mouthparts, could thrive.
The breeding programme is the result of three years of work, after six of the vibrant yellow and black toads were brought from Panama in 2018. If the species goes extinct in its native habitat, tadpoles could be bred in captivity and reintroduced, said Andrew Gray, curator of herpetology at the museum.
“The university is the only institution outside Panama to house these frogs. It’s a huge responsibility the team do not take lightly,” he said. “So we’re over the moon we’ve achieved the first captive breeding of this remarkable species. Our success heralds the next chapter for more innovative amphibian conservation work.
“We were very nervous about putting them in such deep water but they walked along the bottom just like they were walking on land. It was unbelievable,” he said. “The adults can stay underwater for very long periods before breeding and were in the aquarium for over a month.”
Gray’s team is also raising funds to support the toads in their natural habitat, which he says is their priority, and has been training local people how to monitor them. According to the IUCN the toads are critically endangered, with climate change, habitat destruction, hunting and invasive species among the main threats.
The toad, sometimes known as the “clown frog”, was once widely distributed. Populations plummeted as a result of the rise of the international pet trade in the 1990s, but the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus is now considered their main threat. They were thought to have gone extinct in Costa Rica because of the spread of the fungus but a small population was rediscovered in a mountainous reserve in 2013.
Dr Luis Urena, the director of Panama Wildlife Conservation charity, which collaborated on the project, said looking after biodiversity must be a top global priority. “We are proud to use the conservation of the harlequin toad of Panama as an example of the positive difference we can make,” he said.
The picture on this article was changed on 8 March 2021. The original was not the species referred to in the article.