Frog Species Are Hopping Into Extinction Before They’re Even Discovered

By Andrew Moseman | July 20, 2010 9:48 am

PanamaFrogAndrew Crawford and his colleagues discovered 11 new species of amphibians in Panama. But they wish it hadn’t happened this way.

The team just completed a long-term study of amphibians in Panama’s Omar Torrijos National Park, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showing the startling disappearance of species there. Co-author Karen Lips began the study back before the disease chytridiomycosis, which is caused by a fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and has devastated amphibian populations, reached that place and began to afflict its inhabitants.

The pre-decline surveys identified 63 species of amphibians within just a 1.5-square-mile (4-square-kilometer) area. After 2004, 25 of those species had disappeared from the site. As of 2008, none had reappeared. An additional nine species saw an 85 percent to 99 percent decline in their abundance [MSNBC].

The team also tested the DNA of the amphibians they studied, and by doing so identified 11 new species that had escaped notice because of their striking physical resemblance to other species. However, five of the newly discovered amphibians are already extinct in the area, vanished before we ever know about them.

This brings the total loss of amphibian lineages to 41%. Naming a species that is already extinct was “pretty sobering”, says Crawford [Nature].

And this discovery of the already dead isn’t likely to end, he says:

“In amphibians, the amount of new species described every year keeps going up. We can’t even guess where it is going to stop…. But at the same time, we keep losing them. One third of amphibian species around the world are listed on the IUCN Red List” [].

Meanwhile, other researchers are racing to stop the die-off. The main thrust of current research is to culture beneficial bacteria from healthy amphibians that could help keep the fungus at bay. But scientists don’t know whether a plan to inoculate wild species this way could work.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: 10 Studies That Revealed the Great Global Amphibian Die-Off—And Some Solutions
DISCOVER: Are Frogs Hopping Straight Into Extinction?
80beats: Lizards Can’t Take the Heat, But Are They Really Going Extinct?
80beats: Toads—Yes, Toads—May Know When an Earthquake Is Coming
Discoblog: Frogs Pee Away Scientists’ Attempts To Study Them

Image: Andrew Crawford

  • FUAG

    Ah, if only we were around to make fluffy wool sweaters for the Dinosaurs… Damn our incompetence!

  • Nemesis


    I guess the only species that matter to you (besides sheep) are people and animals we regularly eat. For you, I assume those would be the Great Alaskan fried fish, and the North American hamburgerbird.

    I’m glad you’ve watched enough Inspector Gadget to learn the word “incompetence”, and possess understanding enough to know you fall into the group that is defined by it.

  • nick

    Evolve or die.

    Nature took care of itself for most of 2 billion years before we were around.

  • Prasad

    Worse the pity if evolution stops at us, innit

  • FUAG

    I am a lover of nature, I very much enjoy the wealth of beauty provided by its bountiful species. But if a species is dying of natural causes it is part of nature and evolution. Are you proposing that we should now, given that we have the ability, muck with evolution?

    I look forward to your post when 5 years from now there is an article on how the Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungus evolved into something that can harm humans, or makes it more difficult for other frog species to evolve to defend against it, due to our tinkering with evolution.

    In many occasions, one should not be asking “what can we do” but rather “what should we do”. Science has done MANY things throughout history that, in hindsight, were catastrophically ignorant.

  • Mike Judd

    The jury is still out to be sure and we are guilty of great hubris by imagining we can ‘fix’ everything that bothers us. I don’t suspect that reporting the apparent disappearance of species really qualifies as tinkering with evolution however. Or lamenting the event. That said there is some thought that this fungus responsible for taking out many species of amphibians world wide has become more virulent due to climate change. That might not even be healthy for us! Agree with FUAG that many steps have been taken to fix things that were far worse than the problem eg. cane toads in Australia at the moment and elsewhere earlier. Have to admire your ability to distract from the story and bring hostile fie to yourself though.

  • Jaz

    @#5 Although I am still doing research on this subject, I was under the impression that the spread of the chytrid fungus was thought to be caused by people shipping African clawed frogs all over the world to be used in pregnancy testing. I’m not sure that that qualifies as “dying of natural causes”.

    I do agree with you that we don’t fully comprehend the ramifications of what we are doing. (I’m sure that the people shipping African clawed frogs around the world had no idea of the problems they would be causing half a century later), but the alternative is to sit back and watch an entire class of animal be wiped out. Natural vs. unnatural kind of becomes a moot point when you think about the ramifications that this would have on the ecosystem.

  • bluedancer

    it all seemed to happen very dramatically in 2006—ccd became an issue, white nose fungus in bats, chytrid in frogs—it seems that this is when the epidemics started to come to a head. i wonder what drought conditions were like world-wide in that year—if this is one immune stressor.

    if something happens this suddenly, can it be related to evolution (or the failure to evolve?) i also think it’s more likely the die-off has something to do with sudden environmental changes as a result of climate change, something the peer-reviewed studies agree has had a human factor. the transport of unfamiliar pathogens from place to place doesn’t help either—but this has happened for quite some time. it just now is having dramatic effects. something else has changed.


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