Home | Breeding | The Unique, Endangered Panamanian Golden Frog or Harlequin Toad – Part 1

The Unique, Endangered Panamanian Golden Frog or Harlequin Toad – Part 1

The Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) is one of the world’s most highly endangered amphibians, but has entered the pet trade from time to time and is sometimes seen in private collections. I’ve had the good fortune of working with these Neo-Tropical gems at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos, and would like to highlight their amazing natural history and desperate plight here.


Golden frogs reach a mere 1.4 – 2.5 inches in length, with individuals inhabiting dry forests being 2/3 the size of wet forest dwellers (please see “Habitat”, below).

Slim and long-legged, golden frogs are clad in bright gold, brilliant to pale yellow, or greenish-yellow. The black markings they sport range from random blotches to small spots, or may be entirely absent. The head is longer than it is wide, and the snout is pointed.

Sub-adult frogs are very different from adults in appearance, being vivid green with black markings. This color scheme provides excellent camouflage among the moss-covered boulders of their streamside habitat.

Most people are surprised to learn that this species is classified in the family Bufonidae, along with the familiar American toad. It usually moves with a peculiar, ambling walk.


Golden frogs are known only from the Cerro Campers-Valle de Anton region of western Panama.


Golden frogs are restricted to the margins of swiftly flowing streams on the montane slopes of Panama’s Central Cordillera rainforests and cloud forests, at elevations of 335-1,315 meters above sea level.

There are 2 distinct habitat types, wet forest and dry forest. Animals within wet forest habitats congregate on streamside boulders, to a height of 9 feet above the ground; dry forest frogs forage mainly on the ground. In both habitats, females move into the forest with the approach of the rainy season, while males tend to remain in the territories that they have established along the streams.

Communicating by Sign Language

The Panamanian golden frog has evolved a number of adaptations that allow it to breed in swiftly flowing streams, which are relatively hostile environments for small amphibians.

Males utilize hand waving and foot movements, known as “semaphoring”, in order to advertise their presence to females and to discourage other males. This communication system has apparently evolved in response to the deafening noise of the waterfalls in the streams where these frogs reproduce…vocal signals from such a small animal would be ineffective.

Males that intrude on another’s territory are attacked, and a wrestling bout ensues.


A single egg strand, containing 200-650 eggs, is laid by each female. The egg strand is attached to a large rock, which protects it from fast currents. The eggs hatch in 7-10 days.


The tadpoles are dark with golden flecks and have an adhesive disc on the ventral surface that allows them to cling to rocks in fast-moving streams. They feed by scraping algae and diatoms from the surface of submerged rocks, and congregate at the edges of pools below cascades.

In captivity, tadpoles transform over an unusually variable time period…75-265 days.


Newly transformed frogs differ greatly from adults in appearance, being vivid green with black markings. They also differ in behavior – whereas the adults are diurnal and quite bold, young golden frogs hide among moss covered streamside boulders.

It is believed that sub-adult frogs lack the potent skin toxins of the adults, and therefore rely upon camouflage for protection.


Further Reading

You can read about golden frog conservation projects at


Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by Jeff Kubina.


  1. avatar

    We are also working to develop a cure for the disease that wiped out these magnificent frogs in the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project http://amphibianrescue.org

About Frank Indiviglio

Read other posts by

Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
Scroll To Top