Melanophryniscus montevidensis - the Naomi Campbell of the amphibian world. This dark, venomous beauty hangs out with Argentinian billionaires in the sand dunes of Uruguay
I'm leaving Argentina and heading to Punta del Este in Uruguay, also known as the St Tropez of South America. Admittedly this is not the most obvious place to be looking for frogs (of the amphibian kind) but I've been invited by a friend of a friend, Miguel Reynal, who just happens to be a very well respected conservationist so I'd be silly to say no.
Punta is super glitzy - high rises, high prices and plenty of plastic surgery. There's not a lot of subtlety here - as demonstrated by the shop names. This is where the South American super rich come to play, jetting in for the weekend and staying in beachfront villas that cost up to $30,000 a week to rent in high season. The small towns and windswept deserted beaches just to the north are super chic and frequented by the likes of Giselle and Naomi Campbell.
The sand dunes here are also home to Melanophryniscus montevidensis, alias the Montevideo red-bellied toad, which has more than a few things in common with Miss Campbell. This incredibly rare black toad may be beautiful but is, in fact, highly toxic. It's skin secretes alkaloids - poisonous chemicals which it sequesters from its diet of termites and ants. This black beauty signals its venomous nature by flashing the dramatic red underside of its hands, feet and belly when frightened, warning potential predators not to mess with it.
The sad reality is that I have more chance of spotting a supermodel on these sand dunes than I do a red-bellied toad. Their numbers are in steep decline. It seems they don't like to share their sand dunes with luxury penthouses, bronzed beach bunnies and cavorting Argentinean playboys looking for wife number 7. High-end tourism and red-bellied toads don't mix.
However I am pleased to discover that inland this part of the world is frog heaven. Away from the beach, the fields and ponds are alive with the chirrupy sing song of amorous amphibians. During a heavy rainstorm on the first night I run into another toad, Rhinella dorbignyi. He is literally sitting on my doorstep waiting to meet me.
He may be common, but he's a gorgeous lime green burrowing toad who normally spends all day in his dug-out home waiting for something tasty to walk past but has been lured out by the rain and is looking for a mate. He is my first frog prince in Uruguay and I am delighted to meet him, although I'm not sure the feeling is reciprocated.