Deadly Fungus Invades Frogs' Last Safe Haven in Central America

By Veronique Greenwood | June 14, 2011 5:07 pm


What’s the News: A fungus that his been wiping out frog species all over the world is creeping into the last area patch of tropical mountains in the Americas escape its scourge, the Darien National Park in Panama, and scientists are scrambling to save what species they can.

Frogs have been taking a beating over the last three decades, due in large part to a ruthless killer called chytrid fungus. Identified in the late ’90s, the fungus is startlingly lethal, driving 50% of species into extinction and killing 80% of individuals within five months of appearing at one location in Panama. It spreads through water via spores, affecting even areas where humans have not penetrated. “It is the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates in terms of the number of species impacted, and its propensity to drive them to extinction,” wrote a team of scientists in a 2005 World Conservation Union report [pdf].

How the Heck:

  • Chytrid fungus interferes with frogs’ ability to absorb electrolytes through the skin, which is required for muscles to contract. Once frogs are infected, their reflexes start to fail, their skin begins to fall off, and they may go into convulsions. Eventually, their hearts stop.
  • It’s spread by frogs moving from stream to steam, by water-borne (and perhaps air-borne) spores, and by humans who bring the fungus into streams on boots, cars, and equipment.
  • Four years ago, a survey at the edge of the Darien National Park found that the frogs were still chytrid-free. But last year, scientists discovered that 2% of the frogs they surveyed had the fungus on their skin.

What’s the Context:

The Darien park, which is a World Heritage Site, is home to many species of endangered amphibians, including the Panamanian golden frog, the country’s national animal (pictured above). As Nature‘s Great Beyond blog reports, conservationists had high hopes for keeping those species alive:

“Everyone was looking at this one little teeny blank spot on the map,” says Brian Gratwicke, biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington D.C. “In terms of global amphibian conservation priorities, that was considered the best shot. And now that window of opportunity is closing.” He adds that a consortium of researchers – the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project – are racing to collect the frogs and find places to keep them alive in captivity. “Right now we are keeping them in shipping containers,” he says (via Great Beyond).

The Future Holds: As far as the Darien park species are concerned, scientists won’t be able to save all of them in time, Gratwicke says (via ScienceDaily), although captive breeding populations have been established for some. For the rest of the world’s amphibians, the forecast is grim: there is no known cure. But scientists are testing whether applying certain kinds of bacteria to frogs could help inoculate them against the fungus and seem to be having some success, although different species of frogs may require different species of bacteria to survive.

Image credit: bobosh_t/flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Fernando

    Hopefully our scientists, conservationists and enviromently concerned citizens of earth will be able to save and preserve as many species as they can during this terrible blight the frogs currently face. i am not gonna follow the usual ignorance that religious fanatics frequently post all i want to say is what do you think God will judge us more on how clean our houses are or how clean the earth that he made and put us on is???

  • dave chamberlin

    This is a very important news story that deserves more coverage. The quote “It is the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates in terms of the number of species impacted and it’s propensity to drive them to extinction” states exactly why. There are few causes I have greater respect for than protecting life’s tremendous diversity. I wish more philanthropists would center their attention on such noble causes as this one.

  • Pam

    Wonder what would happen if this jumps kingdoms into birds or mammals

  • J. Seamus Boylson

    We have available a highly tested (by multiple major Labs) Non-Chem & Non-Toxic water, fresh food & sanitation purification solution, that – uniquely, among ALL such agents/processes – is able to quickly dispatch ALL forms (i.e., Bacterial, Viral, Fungal & even Algae – including “drug resistant” strains) of pathogens.
    I’d be most happy to provide some samples, to those DIRECTLY involved in trying to find a way to stop this disease from spreading further, & wiping out even more species.

    We may not always think of the ancillary good that such “lower” members of the animal chain can do for us; but frogs can contribute greatly to both Mosquito & other negative insect populations, as well as providing (via eggs/tadpoles} a great source of food to our fish stock. Considering how many of our indigenous populations are still largely dependent on such resources, we NOW have a major added obligation to do what we can with our advanced technology; TO SAVE THE SPECIES, AS WELL AS THE POPULATIONS & ECOLOGY DEPENDENT ON SUCH!

  • Bonsai King

    Let nature find its way. That is why evolution works through genetic diversity.
    Saving species by human intervention is futile. The task is humongous. Resources otherwise spent to more practical things. We must trust that a few members of a species would have a natural immunity to the virus. They will go forth and multiply and save their own species. Life is resilient!

    I would advice my fellow scientists to please relax.


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