A team of biologists recently studied rainfrogs in the forests of northern Ecuador. While doing so, they made a surprising discovery: a Mindo harlequin toad. The creature hadn’t been seen alive in 30 years. The scientists couldn’t believe their eyes.
“The three of us spotted it simultaneously,” Melissa Costales told TIME for Kids. She’s a conservation biologist. Her partners were scientist César Barrio-Amorós and reptile and amphibian guide Eric Osterman.
“It took our brains a while longer than normal to recognize that we were watching an Atelopus mindoensis!” Their findings were published in the spring, in the journal Herpetology Notes. Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians.
The Mindo harlequin is the latest harlequin toad species “to come back from the dead,” says Costales. Since 2003, eight others have been found, three of them in Ecuador.
Until recently, 13 of the 25 species of harlequin toads in Ecuador had gone unseen since the 1980s or early 1990s. Scientists thought most of them had been wiped out by a fungal disease called chytrid. This illness is especially harmful to the harlequin toad.
Costales says the Mindo harlequin may have developed a resistance to the disease. That would explain the toad’s reappearance. And it could spell good news for other harlequins. Since discovering the first one, Costales’s team has found five more. They were all tested for chytrid. None had the disease. But that doesn’t mean the survival of the species is guaranteed, Costales says. The harlequin toad is still endangered.
Costales is developing a conservation plan with a zoology museum in Ecuador. She wants to make sure the Mindo harlequin toad doesn’t fall back into extinction.
“Each rediscovery gives us a second chance to develop better conservation strategies,” she says. “Not every day do we have the opportunity to rediscover a species that we believed to be extinct.”