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The Unique, Endangered Panamanian Golden Frog or Harlequin Toad – Part 2

Please see Part I of this article to learn about the natural history of the Panamanian Golden Frog , Atelopus zeteki, including it’s unique mode of communication.

Status of Wild Populations

Panamanian Golden Frog numbers are plummeting, most likely due to an epidemic of the largely incurable fungal infection
 Panamanian Golden Frog
Chitridiomycosis. The fungus responsible, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, has been implicated in the declines and extinctions of numerous amphibian species worldwide. This frog is also threatened by deforestation, stream siltation, pollution and collection for use as a promotional tool in Panama’s restaurant, hotel and tourism industries (this practice is illegal, but enforcement is often lax).

It is estimated that Golden Frog populations have declined by 80% in both numbers and extent of occurrence over a 10 year period. At least 2 distinct populations are extinct, with 1 such extinction occurring within the span of several months. Golden Frogs are designated as “Critically Endangered” by the IUCN and listed on Appendix I of CITES. They are legally protected by Panama and the subject of a cooperative rescue program, administered by the USA and the Republic of Panama, known as “Project Golden Frog”. Fortunately, the Golden Frog breeds well in captivity.

Unique Skin Toxins

This frog’s skin contains extremely virulent nerve toxins that differ from those produced by other amphibians. Known as “zetekitoxins”, the poison contained in the skin of a single 2-inch-long frog is sufficient to kill 1,200 mice! It is believed that these toxins are produced in association with symbiotic bacteria, but this has not yet been definitively documented.

Cultural Significance

The Panamanian Golden Frog is the national animal of the Republic of Panama, and has traditionally been associated with matters relating to good fortune. Pre-Columbian indigenous people molded its likeness in gold and clay talismans known as “huaces”.

Further Reading

You can learn more about Project Golden Frog by clicking here.


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.

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