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Costa Rican Variable Harlequin Toad: The Intriguing Atelopus Varius

Costa Rican Variable Harlequin Toad

The Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad (Atelopus Varius), also known as the clown frog, is a small true toad species of the family Bufonidae. Native to Central America, this Neotropical toad was once common and widespread in its native range Costa Rica and Panama. Now it is in danger of becoming extinct as only a small population is left near Quepos, Costa Rica, and a few in western Panama.

This article delves into various aspects of the Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad, including its life, size, and physical characteristics, and how they contribute to the toad’s survival in the wild. Additionally, we will explore the toad’s lifespan, its current population status, and its habitat. As a bonus, we will also share interesting facts about this Harlequin toad.

An Overview of the Costa Rican Variable Harlequin  Toad

The Costa Rican variable Harlequin frog belongs to the larger genus Antelopus of true toads under the family Bufonidae. These toads are commonly known as the Harlequin toads or frogs.

Antelopus Varius (the variable Harlequin frog) is a small, slim-bodied species with a pointy snout and is characterized by highly variable coloration.

Its dorsal coloration is usually brown or black and is overlaid with mosaic streaks and spots. These can be a combination of colors such as red, orange, yellow, green, or blue.

Its underbelly comes marbled with yellow, white, red, and/or orange. Its toes are pointed and lack discs.

An Overview of the Costa Rican Variable Harlequin  Toad

Unlike most other toad species, males lack vocal sacs and use visual displays to attract females for mating. These include stamping in the ground, head and leg twitching, or hoping in place.

This variable Harlequin frog is commonly found in the moist rainforest floor, from the lowlands all the way to the cloud forests. It often stays near streams and other flowing water sources filled with boulders and streams, where they lay their eggs.

As for its geographical range, this toad is present in Costa Rica, southern Central America, and northwestern South America.

This frog is diurnal and its diet includes small insects such as gnats and flies.

During breeding, the females lay between 30 and 75 eggs as the male simultaneously fertilizes them. The eggs are deposited in shallow waters in long strings. The eggs then hatch within 36 hours.

Resulting tadpoles feature a flattened body in addition to abdominal suckers that help prevent them from being swept away by the water.

Currently, this toad is listed as a critically endangered species by the IUCN Red List. It has started to disappear from its native range in Costa Rica where it used to be plenty some few years ago.

Key reasons behind its population decline include habitat loss as rainforests are being destroyed at alarming rates, climate change, and harmful chytrid fungal diseases, among others.

Current efforts to preserve this frog include captive breeding programs and protection of the rainforest habitat that this toad calls home. A report dated March 2021 confirms that this species has for the first time been successfully bred outside Panama, in captivity. (Source).

Note that these toads are also popular in the pet trade, despite the species being a challenge to successfully maintain in captivity.

These toads play an important role in the ecosystem they live in such as controlling insect populations and the indicators of the water quality.

Catch a glimpse of the Costa Rican Variable Harlequin toad in the video below:


Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad size

The Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad is a smallish, slim-bodied toad, with adults measuring around 1 to 1.5 inches (2.4 to 3.8 cm) long from snout to vent. Females are generally larger than males and can grow up to 2.3 inches (5.84 cm).

Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad lifespan

Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad lifespan

The lifespan of the Costa Rican Variable Harlequin toad in the wild is unknown. However, this toad is known to have a lifespan of up to 10 years in captivity.

This is because a captive-bred toad enjoys living in stable conditions where temperature and humidity are controlled and enjoys protection from natural predators, which further extends its longevity.

Other reasons for extended lifespan in captivity include access to a consistent, nutritious diet and better disease prevention and management practices compared to the wild toads.

Variable Harlequin frog population

The exact number of variable Harlequin frogs in the wild is unknown. However, its numbers in the wild have significantly declined and the species is currently listed as critically endangered.

Variable Harlequin frog population

Key factors contributing to the decline of its numbers in the wild include climate change, pollution, deforestation, and the spread of chytrid fungus.

Various conversion efforts are underway to mitigate these threats to help preserve the remaining populations of this toad.

Variable Harlequin frog habitat

The Variable Harlequin frog is native to the rainforests in Central America. Specifically, it is found in the humid lowlands as well as montane forests.

It is usually spotted in crevices or rocks along streams. Note that this amphibian is primarily terrestrial and only enters the waters during the breeding season.

Variable Harlequin frog habitat

Variable Harlequin toad facts

Here are some amazing facts we found about the Costa Rican Variable Harlequin toads:

  • Variable Harlequin toad uses its conspicuous coloration to serve as a warning to all potential predators against snacking it or else they will experience the wrath of its toxicity.
  • This warning seems to work well as the only known predator for this toad is the parasitic sarcophagid fly (Notochaeta bufonivora). It usually deposits its larvae on the toad’s thigh. The larvae then proceed to burrow inside the amphibian and start eating it from within.
  • Antelopus varius was once believed to have gone extinct (around 1996). However, a breeding population of the toad was discovered following an assessment between 2011 and 2013 in Costa Rica, removing the extinction tag from the species.
  • The Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad belongs to the genus Antelopus (also known as Harlequin toads or stubfoot toads). These are some of the most endangered groups of toads.
Variable Harlequin toad facts


Why are variable Harlequin frogs endangered?

Variable Harlequin frogs are endangered due to several factors listed below:

  • Habitat loss: The rainforest where these toads call home is being destroyed at alarming rates, causing habitat loss and alteration for these species.
  • Climate change: This is particularly true for the rising temperatures experienced from the late 1980s to early 1990s, affecting lizard and amphibian species.
  • Pathogenic chytrid fungus: This deadly fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), is also believed to be another likely cause behind the rapid decline in the populations of this toad.

Other potential causes include pollution and the introduction of alien species that compete for resources.

Where can you buy Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad?

If you’re looking to buy a Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad, you may want to consider reputable exotic pet stores, amphibian breeders, or amphibian rescue organizations.

Online forums and communities by dedicated amphibian enthusiasts are another potential source.

However, note that buying or selling these toads may be regulated due to their endangered status, so you should first consult your local regulations regarding keeping this pet toad.

Are Costa Rican variable Harlequin toads poisonous?

Yes, the Costa Rican variable Harlequin toads are poisonous. They release skin secretions that are toxic to help repel potential predators. It is believed that this toad’s bright coloration acts as a warning of its toxic nature to the potential predators in the wild.


The Costa Rican variable Harlequin toad is native to Costa Rica and Panama. It inhabits montane forests and moist lowlands along the streams, which serve as its breeding sites. It has a highly variable coloration; it’s covered by brown or black and overlaid with mosaic spots/streaks of red, orange, yellow, green, or blue. Besides making it visually appealing, these bright colors act as a warning of its toxicity to potential predators.

Keep in mind that this toad’s population in the wild has dwindled and is currently classified as critically endangered. It has even been thought to have gone extinct at some point. Key threats to its survival include habitat loss, climate change, pollution, and deadly chytrid fungus disease. Some of the conservation efforts being taken to help preserve the toad population include habitat protection and captive breeding programs.

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