There’s a fungus that infects many kinds of amphibians. Some get wiped out entirely—but it’s harbored harmlessly by others, so it’s impossible to eradicate. Over a hundred species have disappeared in the last 20 years!
You’ve got to read this:
• Joseph R. Mendelson III, Lessons of the lost, American Scientist 99 (November-December 2011), 438.
The fungus causes a disease called chytridiomycosis. The effects are gruesome: when spores land on a susceptible amphibian, they quickly sprout and form a vase-shaped structure that harvests energy from the animal’s skin. This produces more spores, which swim around using flagella and spread. The disease progresses as these reinfect the host. The victim may become lethargic, lose skin over its body, go into convulsions, and die.
Amphibian populations have been dropping rapidly worldwide since the 1980s. There were about 6500 species, but now 30% of these are endangered, about 130 are ‘missing’, and about 30 are extinct in the wild.
There were many theories about the cause of this decline, but now we know this disease is playing a big role. As Mendelson says:
Herpetologists and wildlife biologists began observing inexplicable disappearances of amphibians around the globe in the mid-1970s and especially by the mid-1980s but were at a complete loss to explain them. Finally, in the late 1990s, an insightful team of pathologists at the U.S. National Zoo, led by Don Nichols, collaborated with one of the few chytrid fungus scholars in the world, Joyce Longcore, and identified this quite unusual new genus and species.
Conservationists and disease ecologists were unprepared for the reality of a pathogen capable of directly and rapidly—mere months!—causing the elimination of a population or an entire species that was otherwise robust. Classical host-pathogen theory held that such dramatic consequences to the host population or species were only realized when the host population was already drastically reduced in size or otherwise compromised. The concept of a lightning extinction was foreign to researchers and conservationists, and we argued vehemently about it throughout the 1990s at symposia worldwide.
In retrospect, the scenario of a spreading pathogen is parsimonious and clear, but in the midst of the massacre we were entangled in logical quagmires along these lines: “The disappearances cannot be the result of disease; diseases are not capable of such.” Not to mention the fact that the smoking gun, the pathogen itself, was not described until 1999. While we were debating the issue, a terrible lesson was playing out for us around the world as an unknown disease decimated amphibian populations.
What are the ‘lessons’ that Mendelson is talking about? Here are some:
Our powerlessness in this terrible crisis must be balanced by increased efforts in realms that we can control, such as reducing carbon emissions to protect what habitat remains from chemical and physical disruption. We can go further and restore what has been wounded but can still be salvaged. We need to inspire and fund truly innovative research on pathogens in order to better predict and thwart emerging infectious diseases. The lessons we learn here will extend far beyond the amphibians. We must support funding for programs such as the Amphibian Ark and the Amphibian Survival Alliance. We must keep looking for species gone missing, and continue biodiversity surveys, despite the sometimes paralyzing depression that both activities can induce in this era. But especially, we need to pay close attention to the lessons that legions of dead amphibians are teaching us. I note with some satisfaction that our colleagues in bat research and conservation did not spend a decade arguing whether the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome could possibly eliminate entire colonies of bats in a single season. Our colleagues assumed that it was possible and reacted quickly. We can thank the amphibians for leaving us that lesson, but at such cost.
Yes, millions of bats in America have died from a new fungal disease called white-nose syndrome.
What role, if any, do people play in the spread of these new diseases? Why are they happening now?
In the case of amphibians, people helped spread American bullfrogs. These are resistant to the disease, but carry it. They’ve largely taken over here in Singapore.
Global warming seems not to be responsible, because the worst outbreaks happen at high elevations, where it’s cool: that’s where the fungus thrives.
As for the bats, the same fungus that’s killing bats in America is found in healthy bats in Europe, which suggests the disease spread from there. People might carry spores on their clothes from infected caves to not-yet-infected ones, so visitors to caves with bats are being asked to limit their activities, and disinfect clothing and equipment. It’s completely against the rules to visit some caves now.
There have been successful attempts to cure some amphibians of chytridiomycosis:
• A team of scientists published a paper claiming that Archey’s frog (Leiopelma archeyi), a critically endangered species in New Zealand, was successfully cured of chytridiomycosis by applying chloramphenicol topically.
• Don Nichols claims to have cured several species of frogs using a drug called itraconazole.
• Jay Redmond at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire claims that raising poison dart frogs in water containing Rooibos tea (Aspalathus linearis) wards off chytridiomycosis.
• Don’t ever release pet amphibians into the wild.
• Build a frog pond: here’s how. Even in arid places like Riverside California, our friends who built some ponds soon found them occupied by sweetly chirping frogs.
• Get involved in collaborations that promote sustainable breeding and management, like the Amphibian Steward Network.
• Figure things out. Zoos don’t even know how to breed common toads without using artificial hormone injections! If you could find a way, maybe the same technique could be used with threatened species.
• If you’re a student, go to James Madison University and work with Reid Harris:
or go to the University of Maine and work with Joyce Longcore:
or find a university closer to you with someone leading a group that studies chytridiomycosis!
(Click on the pictures for even more info.)
I thank Allen Knutson for pointing out the American Scientist article. This is the best popular science magazine in the English language, but I let my subscription lapse when I came to Singapore!