Conservation of the New Harlequin Toad—Rafael F Jorge interview

Here’s a Rafael F Jorge interview on the new species of harlequin toad and his concerns about conserving it. Jorge is from the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Brazil.

Today, we wanted to discuss with Rafael F. Jorge about his recently published paper in Diversity, where Miquéias Ferrão, Albertina P. Lima, and himself describe a new species of Atelopus from the lowlands of Central Amazonia in the region of Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil.

Rafael F Jorge interview

Let’s speak to Jorge about his work.

Can you give us a brief introduction of Atelopus?

The harlequin toad (Atelopus) is a well-known genus of neotropical toads, and new species are being discovered all the time.

Atelopus is useful in several different domains. It has a 40-million-year evolutionary history, which can help to improve our understanding of the processes that contribute to its impressive biodiverse nature in neotropics. The toads also possess toxins in their skin (i.e. tetrodotoxin, chiriquitoxin) that may be useful for drug research. In addition, their vibrant colours, body motion communication and reproductive behaviour may make them useful as part of touristic activities for nature enthusiasts.

How do you feel about the discovery of the Manauense harlequin toad?

The exciting new discovery of the Manauense harlequin toad (Atelopus manauensis) this year is a triumph for the field of diversity, but paradoxically causes concern for the toad’s future. Prior to its discovery, the species was previously often mistaken for Atelopus pulcher and/or Atelopus spumarius (Pebas stubfoot toad), due to its external similarities—even though these species are both distributed in Peru and Ecuador, rather than in Brazil.

The newly discovered toad is relatively small (21mm on average) and is named after its location in Manaus, the largest city in Amazonia, Brazil. It is patchily distributed in narrow geographic boundaries surrounding Manaus.

Female and male of Atelopus manauensis (Manauense harlequin toad) from Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke (type locality) in axillary amplexus.

Is Atelopus threatened with extinction? What is the conservation status of Atelopus?

In Brazil, most Atelopus toads are located in the highly fragmented region “The arc of deforestation” in Pará. Atelopus species are ahigh risk of extinction, and therefore an international effort (Atelopus Survival Initiative—ASI) is being made for the conservation of Atelopus. A Brazilian regional branch of ASI is also being established and aims to discover the true spread of Atelopus in Brazil, further understand the geographic range of the species, and characterize genetic discontinuities. Discovering new information related to these three targets is crucial when it comes to identifying the main threats and creating effective measures for the in situ management of Atelopus in Brazil, or even ex situ management efforts for evolutionary rescue.

Concerns about conservation

Predictably, the Manauense harlequin toad (Figure 1) is already at risk of becoming extinct. Since its discovery, it has become possible to evaluate its conservation status and include it on international and national red lists. According to IUCN criteria, the species is suggested to be “Endangered” (Jorge et al. 2020). This should encourage governmental agencies to restrict or stop companies from building or operating in the areas where the toads are found. Additionally, other measures could be put in place to protect the species and its habitat.

Many species of Atelopus that are still waiting to be described are likely to become extinct in the near future. Around 80% of Atelopus species are at risk of becoming extinct, or are already extinct, due to the direct or indirect effects of human influence. Therefore, efforts to discover more species of Atelopus in Brazil (and its geographic distribution) are urgently needed. Conservation actions to protect harlequin toads in Brazil (Figure 1) are also important—they are highly sensitive to human influence and invasive diseases (e.g. amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis)).

The formal description of the Manauense harlequin toad does have many benefits, however. In order to protect the toad, its habitat (riparian zones of clear-water streams) must be preserved. This preservation may also protect other riparian species in the area, some of them exclusive to these environments. Moreover, plans drawn up to protect the species may guarantee the preservation of headwaters and drainage systems, which are also essential for sustaining human life. Furthermore, the toad plays an important ecological role in its habitat, where there are low densities or absence of small frogs with similar ecological traits there (i.e. diurnal, terrestrial, ant-feeding (frogs that share these traits include Allobates sumtuosus and Amazonphrynella manaos)).

What will be the outlook for the future?

A paper published in MDPI’s Diversity contains the taxonomic description of A. manauensis and has been widely disseminated. This will help to encourage the conservation of the Manauense harlequin toad and raise awareness of other species (both discovered and undiscovered) of Atelopus across Brazilian Amazonia.

It is our hope that the publication of this article will encourage Brazilian politicians and decision makers to propose public policies and avoid the extinction of these wonderful tropical frogs, as well as other organisms in these areas.

Rafael F Jorge interview and more

If you want to learn more about conservation efforts on the MDPI Blog, why not read our article Interview With 2023 Sustainability Awardee Dr Krithi K. Karanth on tiger and elephant conservation in India.