Family Heleophrynidae

Heleophryne natalensis Hewitt, 1913

Natal Ghost Frog, Natalse Spookpadda (A)

By R.C. Boycott

Currently accepted name: Hadromophryne natalensis
Red listing status: Least Concern

Photo by Jessnitz V, 2012. URL: FrogMAP: 784


H. natalensis is endemic to the atlas region. It occurs throughout the Drakensberg and Maluti mountains and along the great escarpment of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho. The recorded altitudinal range is 580–2675 m (Boycott in prep.).

The atlas records are reliable but incomplete, especially for most of Lesotho. This species should be easy to detect since the tadpoles are easily identified and are present in streams throughout the year. Channing (2001) expressed the opinion that this taxon contains a number of cryptic species and that field and laboratory investigations should be undertaken to explore this possibility.


H. natalensis inhabits clear, swift-flowing streams in mountainous terrain; these waters flow through wooded and forested habitat and have headwaters in montane grassland. Annual rainfall in these habitats is 800–2700 mm. Adults often frequent waterfalls and cascades, where they may be found beneath submerged rocks, in rock cracks, in caves, or sometimes in exposed positions on wet rock faces. Tadpoles live on rocky substrates in swift-flowing streams; when disturbed they take cover beneath rocks or in cracks (Boycott in prep.).

This species occupies both Forest and Grassland biomes. Vegetation types include Afromontane Forest, Wet Cold Highveld Grassland, Moist Upland Grassland, North-eastern Mountain Grassland, Afro Mountain Grassland and Short Mistbelt Grassland.

Life history

Young frogs have been collected under stones and on moss covered boulders in shallow headwater streams in May and August in the Woodbush Forest and the Wonderwoud. Three adult female specimens were found in a wet rocky recess at the base of a waterfall in October in Malolotja Nature Reserve, Swaziland. These observations indicate that at least some individuals in the population remain in the vicinity of the breeding habitat after the presumed breeding period has passed. In the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, adults were found in a soil pit and in a hole in a road cutting in grassland, some distance from the nearest streams and forests (Bourquin and Channing 1980; Channing 2001).

Breeding usually takes place in late summer (March–May) when stream flow is reduced, and before winter temperatures become severe (pers. obs.). Males usually call from hidden sites beneath clusters of boulders in stream beds, under the roots of large trees growing in streams, amongst boulders that have created a cascade of rushing water, in rock cracks and crevices in waterfalls, and on cliff faces and rocks located close to waterfalls and cascades. The species has not been heard calling while submerged and males do not call in close proximity to one another, even during peak breeding periods (Boycott in prep.).

The eggs and oviposition sites of H. natalensis have not been described, but it is unlikely that its breeding biology differs greatly from that of other Heleophryne species.


The forested ravines and high altitude montane grasslands, which are the natural habitat of H. natalensis, are mostly protected within remote wilderness areas. However, afforestation with exotic trees, particularly in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, has substantially reduced the non-breeding habitat and caused perennial streams to dry up, effectively eliminating entire breeding populations in the process (L.R. Minter pers. obs.). Additional threats to certain isolated populations comprise the damming of mountain rivers as has occurred in the Lesotho Highlands Project, water extraction and the introduction of alien fish species into the habitat. Nonetheless, owing to the wide distribution of this species, it is not considered to be a conservation priority. It occurs in several private and public protected areas, including Ukahlamba-Drakensberg Park, a World Heritage Site.

Current distribution map

Undated records;  pre-1996;  1996 to 2002;  2003 to present


  • Web:
    FrogMAP. 2023. Heleophryne natalensis Hewitt, 1913. Animal Demography Unit. Accessed from; on 2023-12-01 09:12:58.
  • Book:
    Minter L.R., Burger M., Harrison J.A., Braack H.H., Bishop P.J. & Kloepfer D. (eds). 2004. Atlas and Red Data book of the frogs of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. SI/MAB Series no. 9. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Published by the Smithsonian Institution and the Avian Demography Unit (now Animal Demography Unit).