Giant Chilean frog under threat of extinction

After introducing the not so very attractive, but very interesting Chinese giant salamander to you, now is the time to shine the spotlight on a gigantic aquatic frog, the Helmeted water toad. Not really a stunner either, but esthetics should not be a criterion for me or for the conservation community. Alas, some alarming news has reached me from Chile, where this frog (despite the name it is a frog) has its home, that its numbers are declining rapidly and therefore scientists are setting of the alarm bells.

The Helmeted water toad (Calyptocephalella gayi). Credit: Sergio Bitran M.

The Helmeted water toad (Calyptocephalella gayi). Credit: Sergio Bitran M.


The news was published on the website Canal Azul 24, that publishes articles in Spanish  and also features English translations of their articles. Without trying to sound too cocky, I did feel their translation did not convey all the nuances of the Spanish original and thought I might give it a go and perfect it a bit. A good way to polish up my Spanish as well.

First a small introduction to this rather plump looking animal. The Helmeted water toad is a true giant among the frogs with males reaching lengths of 12 cm and females 32 cm. Specimens have been found that can reach up to 50 cm, half a meter!, even. It is distributed throughout the whole of Chile with some populations occurring in Argentina as well and prefers living at low altitudes up to 500 meter. They are aquatic animals and spend their lives in large, deep ponds and small reservoirs. It has been included by the IUCN on their Red List as a vulnerable species, which means it is in quite some peril.  Several threats have been put forward that are causing the declining numbers: the spread of the chytrid fungus throughout Chile (probably thanks to Xenopus laevi), draining and pollution of ponds by farmers and overharvesting as a food source. And this is where the article by Canal Azul 24 comes in.

A juvenile Helmeted water toad before metamorphosis, already a giant.

A juvenile Helmeted water toad before metamorphosis, already a giant.

The Helmeted water toad is considered a living fossil, and its origins go back to when the Earth’s landmass was divided up in Laurasia and Gondwana, and South America was still connected to Antarctica and Australia. When these continents split up and the Andes was created, some frogs stayed behind in what is now Chile and the species emerged around 110 million years ago. It is considered the last of its lineage and therefore an evolutionary unique animal, with its closest relatives found in Oceania.

“Nowadays it is declared a vulnerable species, but no actions are undertaken to study their  populations or its conservation status. It is such a pity, because they form an important part of the biodiversity”, says Marco Méndez, ecologist at the University of Chile.

Its distribution overlaps with most densely populated areas of the country and that’s why the pressure on this species is high. Not only urbanization is harming the frogs, but also invasive species like the African bullfrog and the water resources that farmers are using and polluting. Even though it is classified as a vulnerable species, you can still find them on the menu card in restaurants.

Capturing the animals is forbidden and whoever wants to sell them should raise them in captivity. But because it takes three years for them to reach a size at which they can be sold, it is suspected that still many of them are caught in the wild. Nobody is really checking this.

“There has been overexploitation and these animals are being used in laboratories, where 10-year old frogs are being dissected for educational purposes”, says Claudia Vélez, expert from the University of Santo Tomás, who manages a breeding center of the species. Her work, together with Paz Loreto Acuña, that she has been conducting for six years now, has given her the opportunity to learn about conservation of this species in captivity. They want to use this knowledge to reintroduce the frogs in sites where they used to occur.

The Helmeted water toad at adult size

The Helmeted water toad at adult size

Marcela Vidal, coordinator of the Chilean network of herpetology, says that even though people have tried to establish commercially viable breeding farms for the species, it didn’t result in sustainable or financially attractive results. This is why they have asked the Chilean government  to forbid these breeding farms, but without any result.

“When we are trying to define a strategy to save the species we should not be torn between two ideas. Do we see it as a vulnerable species or do we see it as a natural resource? If we decide we want to save the species from extinction and forbid the catching of live individuals, then why would we consider using it for human consumption? Especially since none of the breeding farms have showed significant results?, says the specialist.

The experts agree that it is necessary to upgrade the specieson the Red List to the “endangered” status, but in order to so more information is needed on its distribution and the viability of its populations. “We need a particular set of data and we just don’t have it now” , added Marco Mendéz. He conducted a study, together  with Christian Jofré, that showed that half of all Chilean amphibians are found outside of protected areas. The Helmeted water toad has the least favorable distribution of all Chilean amphibians.

Sandra Diaz, a government expert, states that the species is included in a national conservation action plan for all Chilean amphibians. However, as the scientists say, the funding for studying them still has not been handed out. Let’s hope the government will put its money where its mouth is.


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