Family Heleophrynidae

Heleophryne purcelli Sclater, 1898

Cape Ghost Frog, Purcell’s Ghost Frog, Kaapse Spookpadda (A)

By R.C. Boycott

Currently accepted name: Heleophryne purcelli
Red listing status: Least Concern

Photo by Costandius Eloise; Dahne Janse van Rensburg, 2004. URL: FrogMAP: 360


H. purcelli is endemic to the Western Cape Province of South Africa, occurring throughout the inland mountain ranges from the Cederberg in the north (3218BB, 3219AA), southward to the Hex River, Du Toit’s Kloof, Hottentots Holland and Klein River mountains (3419AD), and eastward along the Riviersonderend and Langeberg mountains to the vicinity of Ashton and Montagu (3320CC). The recorded altitudinal range is 60–1770 m.

The atlas records are reliable, with the caveat that a number of records are based solely on tadpoles. In the vicinity of Ashton and Montagu, the eastern limits of H. purcelli and the western limits of H. orientalis are yet to be determined.


H. purcelli occurs in clear, swift-flowing, perennial mountain streams in wooded ravines and gorges in the winter-rainfall region. The annual rainfall is 600–3000 mm (Boycott 1982). The vegetation is Mountain Fynbos, and the streams usually receive direct sunlight at midday.

Adults have been found under submerged rocks in streams, on wet rock faces, under mats of spongy moss and watergrass, in rock cracks, and in caves (Visser 1990). On one occasion, a frog was found clinging to the wall of the old Du Toit’s Kloof road tunnel (G. McLachlan pers. comm.). During the day adults sometimes sit in clear view at the bottom of pools. The tadpoles are found beneath submerged and partly submerged rocks in streams and rocky pools.

Life history

During the winter non-breeding period, juvenile and adult frogs have been found sheltering under rocks a considerable distance (500 m) from the nearest river or stream. It appears that some individuals remain in the vicinity of breeding habitat while others disperse into surrounding habitat for part of the year. In August, in rainy conditions, numerous adult males and females were observed moving across tarred roads in the Franschhoek and Bain’s Kloof mountain passes, in many cases far from the nearest suitable breeding habitat. From these observations it appears that widely dispersed individuals will use wet, cool conditions towards the end of winter to return to their breeding habitat.

H. purcelli breeds in early to mid-summer (October–January) when stream flow is reduced. Most calling takes place during the day, particularly in the late afternoon and at dusk, becoming sporadic after dark (Channing 2001; A. Turner pers. comm.). Males call mostly from rock cracks and crevices adjacent to waterfalls and cascades, but also from rocks on the riverbank or protruding from the stream, usually near small cascades and rapids.

During courtship, a male was observed to move in and out of the water calling rapidly all the while. When under the water, the calls were muffled but still audible from about 3 m away. The female approached in a zig-zag fashion extending her forelimbs to touch the male, who responded by touching the female. Male and female frogs extended their arms and rubbed each other on the dorsal and ventral surfaces of the head and touched each other’s forearms. In this species, the arms and head are covered in asperities. This behaviour has been witnessed on two occasions and it appears that touch may serve as an important recognition factor that leads to amplexus and egg laying. Before amplexus could be observed, the pair moved out of sight under a large boulder (Boycott 1988b; Visser 1990).

The eggs of H. purcelli are large-yolked and yellow with a stiff jelly capsule. They are laid singly and may be scattered over a larger surface area than if they were clumped together. Clutches of 50–208 eggs are laid in exposed positions in small, quiet, shady pools adjacent to the main stream. In such situations there is usually a gentle flow of water into the pool from the main stream (Boycott 1972; Visser 1990). Channing (2001) noted that the eggs may also be laid out of the water in seepage zones, as in H. orientalis.

Tadpoles conceal themselves beneath stones on sandy substrates and, when disturbed, attempt to wriggle into the sand. They are eaten by the common Brown Water Snake Lycodonomorphus rufulus. Metamorphs leave the water during March and April (Boycott 1982).


H. purcelli is not threatened. The species is widely distributed in the Western Cape mountains where most of its habitat enjoys some degree of protection. It occurs in several private and public protected areas.

Current distribution map

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


  • Web:
    FrogMAP. 2023. Heleophryne purcelli Sclater, 1898. Animal Demography Unit. Accessed from; on 2023-12-01 08:12:59.
  • 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).