Take a bunch of fairy tales and mix them up and you may end up with a golden frog — one which lives in the clouds, lays golden eggs, and if you kiss it, will turn into a prince. The toad pictured above did not not do the latter two things, but, once upon a time, this frog actually lived among the clouds.
The golden toad was first discovered in 1966, when a herpetologist named Jay Savage made his way to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica. The reserve, a tropical forest, is marked by a persistent, low-hanging fog, as if the entire wooded area were situated just under a cloud — hence the name. The environment provides a unique ecosystem marked by high moisture yet otherwise warm temperatures, and only makes up about 1% of the world’s woodlands. And the Monteverde reserve is the only place the golden toad has ever been seen, and at their peak, only 1,500 of these creatures were ever known to exist.
But the fact that these creatures were able to carry on at all is a bit of a miracle. Golden toads laid their eggs into shallow mud puddles, no more than an inch or so deep. Even though the eggs hatched rather quickly (a few days), the resulting tadpoles took weeks to undergo metamorphosis into toads. During these weeks, environmental changes in either direction would wipe out this new generation — too much rain would literally wash the tadpoles away; too little would cause the mud puddles to evaporate.
The summer of 1987 caused too much of the latter. Due to El Nino, the ground at Monteverde were unusually dry, and tens of thousands of golden toad eggs failed to hatch. Most of those which did resulted in tadpoles which did not stand a chance. By 1988, an informal count of these toads put their number at 10 or 11 — only one of which was male. By 1989, that number fell to 1 — only the male had survived. Only 23 years after it was originally discovered, the golden toad was gone.
Bonus fact: A modern retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale The Frog Prince features the frog-to-prince metamorphosis alluded to above. But in the original story, the princess never kisses the frog. Rather, she is disgusted by it and throws it against the wall, which causes the creature to transform into the handsome prince.
From the Archives: Pregnant for Sixty Years: The bonus fact is about an interesting use for toads.
Related: Perhaps the only book about golden toads.