Chile Mountains False Toad
(Telmatobufo venustus)
Very little is known about the Chile Mountains false toad – only a few individuals have ever been seen, and it avoided detection for 100 years following its formal discovery in 1899. It is thought to breed in streams that run through temperate beech forests, where the eggs hatch into tadpoles that develop by feeding on algae growing on rocks. The main threats to this species in the wild are forest fires, pine and eucalyptus plantations, and its limited distribution.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Further survey to establish the population status of this species; development of a Conservation Action Plan; habitat protection - restoration of native vegetation.
Western slopes of the Chilean Andes
The closest relative of the false toads is the helmeted water toad (Caudiverbera caudiverbera), which is the only other species in their family. Female helmeted water toads can be over four times the length of the Chile Mountains false toad. Reaching lengths of over 300 mm, they are one of the world’s largest amphibians.
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Anura
Family: Calyptocephalellidae
The Calyptocephalellidae family is a recently defined group of amphibians. Its four members, comprising three false toads (genus Telmatobufo) and the helmeted water toad (genus Caudiverbera) are all found in Chile, and were formerly included in the much lager Leprodactylidae family (commonly known as the “Leptodactylid frogs”). As a group, the Leptodactylidae has been reorganised recently and split into a number of different families, including the Calyptocephalellidae. It is now thought that the redefined Leptodactylidae diverged from all other amphibain groups about 60 million years ago, five milllion years after the extinction of the dinosaurs. However, it seems the Calyptocephalellidae diverged around 70 million years before the Leptodactylid frogs – 130 million years before the present day. They started to evolve separately from all other modern amphibians 30 million years prior to the extinct common ancestor that gave rise to the elephant and the mouse, when dinosaurs were still in abundance!

The false toads are a tiny and little-known genus, all members of which are endangered (Telmatobufo bullocki is Critically Endangered, Telmatobufo venustusis is Endangered, and Telmatobufo australis is Vulnerable). Their closest relative, the Vulnerable helmeted water toad, is a giant among amphibians, with females reaching lengths of over 300 mm. It feeds predominantly on other frogs and toads, although it is also capable of consuming small birds and mammals. Its huge tadpoles can grow to lengths of 15 cm and take about two years to metamorphose. The Calyptocephalellidae family is therefore a highly evolutionarily distinct, unusual and endangered group of amphibians.
Chile Mountains false toad is a moderate sized frog, growing to lengths of around 70 mm. The body is robust with long, slender limbs. The nostrils are on the sides of the snout and protrude. The eyes are large and protruding. There is no visible ear drum. The paratoid glands behind the eyes either side of the head appear as very prominent, large raised bumps that are oval in shape. The feet are webbed, whereas the digits of the had are free of webbing. The skin of the back has numerous prominent oval and round glands, whilst the skin of the stomach is smooth. This species has a beautiful colouration, with a coal-black background, an orange striped pattern across the back, and yellow spots along the sides. The ventral (or lower) surface is also a bright coal-black. Orange and reddish spots and markings appear across the head.
The Chile Mountains false toad is a very poorly known species. After its formal discovery in 1899, it was not seen again for 100 years! Its reproductive behaviour has not been observed, although it probably breeds in streams where its eggs hatch into tadpoles that develop by scraping algae from rock, as is the case for its close relative (also a top 100 EDGE Amphibian) Bullock’s false toad. It probably has a similar diet to this species also, feeding on ground-dwelling invertebrates. This species requires further study to elucidate its life history and behaviours.
It occurs under rocks along streams in temperate Nothofagus (southern beech) forest, and its tolerance to disturbance is unknown.
This species is known from the western slopes of the Chilean Andes from 35°20'S to 38°50'S (Altos de Vilches, Talca Province; Cordillera de Chillan, Chillan Province; and Ralco, Bio Bio Province). It has an elevational range of 1,500 - 1,700 metres above sea level. Its area of occupancy within its overall range is probably very small.
Population Estimate
This is a rare and elusive species. Formally discovered in 1899, it was not seen again for a hundred years. It was rediscovered in 1999 and is known from very few individuals found in just three localities.
Population Trend
This species is thought to be in decline by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The Chile Mountains false toad is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because its area of occupancy is less than 500 km sq., its distribution is severely fragmented, and there is continuing decline in the extent and quality of its habitat on the western slopes of the Chilean Andes.
The main threats to this species in the wild are forest fires, pine and eucalyptus plantations, and its limited distribution.
Conservation Underway
The Chile Mountains false toad occurs in Altos de Lircay National Park, although there are no specific conservation measure ongoing for this species, and additional protection and maintenance of existing habitat is still urgently required.
Conservation Proposed
Monitoring of the Chile Mountains false toads in the wild is a priority so that the population status of this elusive species can be accurately assessed. All information collected should be used to develop a Conservation Action Plan for this species, addressing all relevant threats and determining the best way to conserve remaining populations of this species. Protection by national legislation would be beneficial to raise awareness and inspire local action.

In addition to conserving native habitat for this species, the IUCN Technical Guidelines for the Management of Ex situ Populations, part of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, recommend that all Critically Endangered species should have an ex situ population managed to guard against the extinction of the species. An ex situ population is ideally a breeding colony of a species maintained outside of its natural habitat, giving rise to individuals from that species that are sheltered from problems associated with their situation in the wild. This can be located within the species’ range or in a foreign country that has the facilities to support a captive breeding programme for that species. Since the Chile Mountains false toad is categorised as Critically Endangered, the possibility of a captive breeding programme for this species should be investigated.
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Formas, J.R., Núñez, J.J. and Brieva, L.M. 2001. Osteología, taxonomía y relaciones filogenéticas de las ranas del género Telmatobufo (Leptodactylidae). Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 74: 365-387.

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Veloso, A. and Navarro, J. 1988. Lista Sistemática y distribución geográfica de anfibios y reptiles de Chile. Bollettino del Museo Regionale di Scienze Naturali - Torino 6(2): 481-539.

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