Eastern Ghost Frog (Heleophryne orientalis)

View the above photo record (by A. Coetzer) in FrogMAP here.

Find the Eastern Ghost Frog in the FBIS database (Freshwater Biodiversity Information System) here.

Family Heleophrynidae

EASTERN GHOSTFROG – Heleophryne orientalis

(FitzSimons, 1946)



Size: Males attain 35mm; Females up to 46mm long.

Heleophryne orientalis
Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Trevor Hardaker

The body of Heleophryne orientalis is flattened, enabling them to shelter under rocks and in narrow crevices. They possess large, bulging eyes that feature a broad horizontal line and a smaller vertical line (The pupil is vertical). This gives the eye a crossed appearance. The tympanum (ear drum) is not visible.

The colouration and patterning is somewhat variable. The base colour ranges from beige to olive green with darker brown blotches, spots and bands. A band between the eyes is usually present. The undersides are white.

Adults develop asperities (small, rough protrusions) on the skin at several places, including the fingers, arms and chest.

They have fairly long arms and legs. The fingers and toes are also elongate and have spatulate tips and large discs to enhance grip on slippery surfaces. The feet are well webbed allowing Heleophryne orientalis to be strong swimmers.

Males are smaller than females. Breeding males develop swollen forearms, loose skin on the back and spines on the chest and inner fingers.


Size: Up to 60mm.

Tadpoles of Heleophryne orientalis are broad, flattened and very streamlined. They are equipped with powerful tails and large sucker mouths. These are adaptations to prevent them from being swept away in fast-flowing torrents. The oversized sucker-like mouths also enable them to leave the water and climb vertical rock surfaces.

The overall colouration is yellow-brown with variable mottling. The tail is slightly longer than the body and the upper and lower fins are of roughly equal length.


The Eastern Ghost Frog is confined to patches of Afromontane Forest surrounded by moist Mountain Fynbos (Moll et al. 1984). The average rainfall at these sites ranges from 600 – 3000mm per annum (Boycott 1982). Here Heleophryne orientalis inhabits perennial mountain streams in forested ravines and gorges. They prefer streams with cold, clear water that is often tea-coloured due to tannins from decaying vegetation. These streams often slow to a trickle in the dry season but can become swift-flowing torrents on the wet season.

Habitat – Marloth Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Heleophryne orientalis is often found near waterfalls and cascades, on wet rock faces, in rock cracks and in caves. The tadpoles may be found beneath submerged and partly submerged rocks in swift- and slow-flowing streams and in rocky pools.

Habitat – Marloth Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett


Heleophryne orientalis breeds in early summer when river and stream flow is reduced. This is from mid-October to mid-December with the peak during November.

Calling takes place during the day and night. Males call from various sites inside or adjoining the water, such as from under rocks and from caves and crevices. They may additionally advertise themselves from exposed positions such as lichen-covered boulders near waterfalls and cascades.

Unlike most of the other Heleophryne species, the males of H. orientalis appear to form breeding aggregations, at least during peak periods. Several individuals may be found calling within close proximity to one another.

Egg laying in H. orientalis happens largely outside of the water, yet always in moist environments. Often the only available moisture is a thin layer of water seeping over the substrate on which the eggs are laid. This differs from the egg-laying habits of the other Heleophryne species which lay their eggs while completely submerged in water. Between 114–191 eggs, are laid in clutches in damp moss-covered places between boulders, or under small rocks in the streambed.

Tadpoles feed on algae growing on submerged surfaces in streams and pools. They find shelter under loose pebbles and boulders when disturbed. Their colouration closely matches that of the water and the substrate on which they feed.

Heleophryne orientalis – Tadpole
Marloth Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Advertisement Call

The call is a short, high pitched whistle repeated every couple of seconds.

Status and Conservation

Heleophryne orientalis is not threatened. It is listed as of Least Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

H. orientalis occurs abundantly in forested ravines and gorges on the southern slopes of the eastern Langeberg Mountains and is under no threat. The species occurs in several private and public protected areas such as the Grootvadersbosch and Marloth Nature Reserves.


Heleophryne orientalis is endemic to the Western Cape Province of South Africa. It occurs along the eastern Langeberg Mountains, from near Montagu in the west to the Gouritz River in the east. The Eastern Ghost Frog has been recorded at altitudes ranging from 215-500 m/asl.

The atlas records are reliable but incomplete. Heleophryne records allocated to H. orientalis (as presently defined) were based on the range of H. purcelli orientalis as recognized by Poynton (1964) and Boycott (1982). What remains to be determined are the eastern limits of the range of H. purcelli and the western limits of the range of H. orientalis. It is unlikely that the distributions of the two species overlap.

Distribution of Heleophryne orientalis. Taken from the FrogMAP database as at August 2021.

Further Resources

Virtual Museum (FrogMAP > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Oostelike Spookpadda (Afrikaans)

Recommended citation format for this species text:

Tippett RM, Boycott RC.  Eastern Ghost Frog Heleophryne orientalis. BDI, Cape Town.
Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/08/05/eastern-ghost-frog-heleophryne-orientalis/

Recommended citation format: 

This species text has been updated and expanded from the text in the
2004 frog atlas. The reference to the text and the book  are as follows:

Boycott RC 2004 Heleophryne orientalis Eastern Ghost Frog. In Minter LR
et al 2004.

Minter LR, Burger M, Harrison JA, Braack HH, Bishop PJ, Kloepfer D (eds)
2004. Atlas and Red Data Book of  the Frogs of South Africa, Lesotho and
Swaziland. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and Avian Demography
Unit, Cape Town.

Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!