By Brian Owens
A critically endangered harlequin toad, known as the starry night toad, has been documented by biologists for the first time since 1991 in the mountains of Colombia. But unlike other such stories of “rediscovered” species, this one was never really lost – the local Arhuaco people knew exactly where the toad, which they call “gouna”, was all along.
“We have shared our home with the gouna for thousands of years,” says Ruperto Chaparro Villafaña, who represents the Arhuaco community of Sogrome near where the toad lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. For them, the toad is both an important indicator of the health of the ecosystem, whose presence guides their agricultural activities, and a link to the spiritual world, representing their mission to preserve life on Earth.
Harlequin toads are among the most threatened groups of amphibians in the world. Of the 96 species, 80 are listed as endangered. Two of these are known to be extinct and 37 are considered potentially extinct – including, until now, the gouna. Most live at high altitudes where populations have been ravaged by the deadly chytrid fungus that is wiping out amphibians across the continent.
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Getting access to the area to see if the toad was still present took years of work building trust and friendship between the researchers and the Sogrome community, says Jefferson Villalba, co-founder of Fundación Atelopus, a Colombian conservation group.
He and his colleagues met with the community and its spiritual leaders, called mamos, multiple times over five years. They were eventually allowed to travel to see the toad in April this year, without taking pictures. Having passed that test of trust, they were permitted to return and document the toad alongside members of the community. They found a healthy population of around 30 individuals.
The fact that there is still a stable group of starry night toads gives researchers hope that they can continue to survive despite threats from the fungus and climate change, says Lina Valencia at Global Wildlife Conservation, a US-based environmental group that funded the expedition. “By studying this toad, we might gain answers about why others are not surviving, or learn how to save other species,” she says.
For both Villafaña and Villalba, the next step is to find means of joining the knowledge of the Arhuaco with Western scientific methods in ways that will help improve the conservation of the toads and the ecosystem. “We want to learn to use the tools of the scientific method in a way that can be used in the everyday life of the community,” says Villafaña.
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