Far up in the Langbian Plateau in southern Vietnam, a dense, dark forest gently breathes with a passing breeze. Billowing fog continually invades and shrouds the canopy. Thick, verdant moss blankets every rock and tree, and the landscape weeps with trickling rivulets of water. This gorgeous setting feels like it could host any number of magical beasts, and now, a team of researchers has revealed a new woodland creature that looks particularly at home. Behold, the elfin mountain toad.
In a recent paper in the journal ZooKeys, an team of herpetologists led by Nikolay A. Poyarkov Jr. at Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia and the Joint Russian-Vietnamese Tropical Research and Technological Center in Hanoi, Vietnam, describe the enchanting amphibian for the first time. The “elfin” descriptor is no exaggeration. The toads are itty-bitty, growing to no larger than a half dollar coin. The dainty forest sprite sports two small, horn-like projections over the eyes that resemble pointed ears, and to top it off, the toad’s scientific name—Ophyrophyrne elfina—literally means “elfish eyebrow toad.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t say “eyebrows” and “elves” in the same sentence without thinking about a very particular Elvenking.
The researchers determined that the elfin mountain toad was a new species by making three types of comparisons between it and the other two mountain toads with which it shares its habitat on the Langbian Plateau. They took careful, comparative measurements of its body proportions, shape, and appearance, and using DNA sampling, found that the elfin mountain toad was genetically distinct from the other species. The toads all have a high-pitched, bird-like call, but each species’ whistling vocalizations sound quite different from one another. Based on these differences, the researchers can say that the elfin mountain toad is a truly unique species, until now hidden away in Langbian’s elfin forest.
Rare ecosystems mostly limited to a handful of highlands worldwide, elfin forests really do look like they were lifted right out of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. The wet, cloud-covered crown of Langbian—part of the larger Annamite Mountains, which stretch throughout eastern Indochina—provides the perfect conditions for these humid, subtropical forests. Elfin forests have small, short trees, usually no more than about 30 feet (9 meters) tall, and canopies loaded with epiphytes—plants that benignly take root and grow on the trunks and branches of other, typically much larger plants. Mist and fog are ubiquitous in elfin forests, which the plants rely on it as a major source of precipitation. Together, the diminutive flora and fairy tale aesthetics of these places inspired their name.
It may look like the elfin mountain toad lives in idyllic surroundings, but reality for this little Legolas is no fantasy. Given that the toad is restricted entirely to the small range of its highly-specific Langbian Plateau home, the researchers note that even though we don’t have a good idea how plentiful it currently is, this brand new species is already vulnerable to extinction from habitat loss.
Here’s hoping the teensy critters can continue to spend the rest of their days unmolested by human proceedings, hopping along mossy brooksides and stopping to eat what I’m pretty sure has to be lembas bread.
Jake Buehler is a science writer based in the Seattle area with a fanatical obsession with biology’s weirdest and under-acknowledged stories.