The last confirmed Golden Toad was seen in 1989, almost thirty years ago. However, some scientists familiar with the story of the species’ disappearance find the circumstances suspicious; “amphibians are survivors,” writes National Geographic explorer Robin Moore; they made it through the last four mass extinctions while other groups of species met their demise, and Costa Rica has a reputation for being “a hotbed of surprise rediscoveries” (Moore, 2014). Even Marty Crump, in her 1992 article describing the toad’s disappearance, theorized that that the toads might not be extinct after all, but instead perhaps “alive and hiding in retreats awaiting appropriate weather conditions” (Crump et. al, 1992). I am not the first to suspect that remnant populations of the Golden Toad might still survive somewhere in the undisturbed forests of the Monteverde mountains.
As part of Conservation International’s “Search for Lost Frogs” initiative in 2010, the Golden Toad was positioned at the top of a list of ten extinct species that scientists had reason to believe might still survive. Dr. Alan Pounds, based at the Golden Toad Laboratory for Conservation at the Cloud Forest Preserve and Tropical Science Center in Monteverde, was dispatched to lead a search for the lost species, but numerous expeditions failed to locate the Golden Toad.
After reading Robin Moore’s book about his work with Conservation International and numerous searches for lost amphibian species around the world, I began to wonder who else had gone looking; a little digging into Golden Toad mythology revealed a defunct crowdfunding page hosted by the Herpetological Exploration and Research Team announcing their intentions to travel to Monteverde in search of the Golden Toad. An article in the Tico Times identified Chris Grünwald as the leader of the expedition, who called their efforts “the first coordinated effort to find the toad during the proper time” (Fendt, 2014). Grünwald told the publication that he was convinced that the toad was still out there, and that he was “pretty positive” that his team could rediscover it (Fendt, 2014). The Tico Times provided a link to the team’s Kickstarter page, where they laid out their plans for rediscovering the species, displayed maps of areas in which they planned to search, and offered incentives to funders willing to support the campaign. Unfortunately, it appears that the group failed to meet their $15,000 funding goal by almost $13,000, and the expedition never occurred. Their maps with suspected localities of remnant populations remain on their Kickstarter page, but if any members of the team ever made it to those sites, they kept whatever discoveries they made there to themselves.
Aside from Pounds’ searches for the toad (for which there is no public information) and H.E.A.R.T.’s apparently unfinished expedition, there seem to be no other documented searches for the possibly extinct species. The key word here is documented. Having living in Monteverde for two years, I am confident that local residents who knew the species well have returned to its habitat to look for signs of its reemergence; they have simply kept their efforts to themselves. The question then becomes: is it worth even going on the search at all?
My friend Adam— another gringo who lived a few years in Monteverde— asked me what I would do if I did find one; would I tell the world, or keep the secret to myself? It is a difficult, and pressing, hypothetical question. The reemergence of the toad could spark hope for conservationists working with imperiled amphibian populations, and could bring much needed resources into the protected forests of Monteverde. On the other hand, if the Golden Toad is alive, then it has been surviving for three decades without the help of human hands— perhaps it would be better to allow the species to attend to its own survival.
After dwelling on the question for a long time, I realized that the decision would not be mine to make. I have no claim to this iconic species; it belongs to the forest, to the locals who grew up waiting for its reemergence, perhaps to the conservationists that spent their youth solving the puzzle of its disappearance. If the Golden Toad were to ever remerge, the next important steps should be the decision of its neighbors.
In the history of our brief time on this planet, many have gone looking for the fortune and glory that lies at El Dorado, but few have ever found it. Effectively, our search will be more a search for answers, a search for meaning— what caused the Golden Toad to disappear from the face of the planet? How has its absence affected the ecosystem, the town, and the people who knew it well? What does its story teach us about conservation, extinction, and resurrection; and why is its tale one of such intriguing fascination?
These are the questions that we hope to answer when we go “in search of the Golden Toad.”