Athlete’s Foot Threatens Worldwide Frog Populations

As unpleasant as athlete’s foot is to humans, recent studies show the bacterial fungus is having a devastating effect on frog populations in the United States, Latin America, Europe and Australia.

Since the 1980s, scientists have noted a worldwide frog decline as a result of human factors like deforestation, urban development and various forms of pollution. However, researchers have been puzzled by the creatures’ disappearance in eco-friendly countries like Panama, where several endangered species have rebounded in recent years. Now, field biologists believe they have found their culprit: a fungal infection known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd for short) that attacks frogs by clogging their pores and inducing fatal cardiac arrest.

The epidemic is particularly dire in Central America and the Caribbean, where athlete’s foot has decimated nearly two-thirds of indigenous frog populations. Some species, such as the golden frog (a long-standing symbol of Panamanian biodiversity), have not been seen in the wild for years. Today, researchers at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in Panama are scrambling to find a cure. Scientists at the center have created a ‘frog ark’ to quarantine the surviving frogs and safeguard them against the deadly fungus.

Brian Gratwicke, project coordinator for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project at the Smithsonian, told The L.A. Daily News that scientists have developed ‘frog-farming’ techniques to preserve remaining populations. ”But the last thing we want to do is release these precious, expensive frogs back into wild, just to see them consumed by the fungus all over again,” he said.

Another problem for scientists is ‘setting the mood’, so to speak, as frogs tend to breed under specific conditions. Some species will only mate during certain lunar cycles, while others require a specialized diet of bugs, plant matter and other materials that are hard to come by. Researchers have also noted that an inordinate number of tadpoles born in captivity exhibit strange deformities.

Ultimately, scientists hope to breed frogs until a cure for the fungus has been established and the survivors can be re-released into the wild. They are also studying certain species that have displayed an immunity to the fungus, such as the American bullfrog and the African clawed frog. But most experts are not optimistic.

“Usually when Bd appears, it kills everything it is going to kill, and quickly,” said Roberto Ibanez of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “It kills some species, infects others, who serve as disease vectors, as carriers, so it doesn’t go away.”

By Brad Nehring