Remember when you used to play with frogs as a child while running through the forest on one of your great adventures? Children might think kissing a “frog” will turn it into a handsome prince. Maybe you caught frogs to run races against your friends’ frogs. Did you ever stop to think that those frogs might be in danger from something smaller than the eye can see?
As it turns out there is something harming frogs and salamanders all over the world but, most importantly, right here in New York. This mighty foe is called the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), and it is killing large populations of American bullfrog and American green frog. The fungus does this by affecting the skin of the frog, which upsets electrolyte flow and eventually causes a heart attack. So, how can we learn how this fungus is affecting New York’s amphibian populations? Charles Robinson, a master’s of science student at ESF, is studying just that.
Robinson, who is in his first year of study, is working with Stacy McNulty, associate director of the Adirondack Ecological Center at ESF’s Newcomb Campus. Robinson is studying the intensity and distribution of the fungus in relation to recreation activities in Northern New York. The idea is that recreationists pick up the fungus on their gear in one place and then spread the fungus to other places as they travel. Robinson believes that, with increased recreation, both the distribution and intensity of the fungus will also increase.
Robinson said the fungus harms amphibians all over Europe, Africa and North America. In addition, most current research on amphibians focuses on frogs, as opposed to other species such as salamanders, so Robinson has lots of past data to refer to when doing his research.
Another chytrid fungus species that interests Robinson is one that harms only salamanders. This species is not yet found in North America, and it currently affects salamander populations in Europe.
An issue facing Robinson’s research is that the fungus does not affect all species of frogs and salamanders. Some are hardier than others, but there is no work to show this. Robinson noted that it is more difficult to notice drops in salamander species, which could make it hard to find either type of chytrid fungus possibly affecting Northern New York. The fungus has no known origin, but most research points to Africa where the African clawed frog can be found. This frog is shipped worldwide for food and the exotic pet trade, and is a known carrier of the fungus. This worldwide trade aids the spread of the fungus.
When Robinson finishes his research, he hopes to offer more complete range and risk maps. This could help accurately control current populations of the fungus as well as prevent new ones. This is important because the chytrid fungus might be an invasive species and these maps will be able to provide a crucial step in finding this out.
If Robinson continues work in this area he would like to explore a couple of new things. First, he would like to find out how long it takes for the fungus to dry out and die. When looking at how recreation affects the dispersal of the fungus it is important to know how long the fungus can stay alive on a recreationist’s gear. Also, Robinson would like to look at how recreationists’ and researchers’ interactions with sites that do and do not have the fungus changes the range of the fungus. This can give researchers an understanding of how caring for their things between sites can affect the overall range of the fungus.
So next time you pick up a frog or salamander, check and see if there’s anything fuzzy on its skin. Report it to ESF (contact Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org) and help save the lives of many frogs and salamanders all over the world!
This blog post was contributed by Jacqueline McCabe, a master’s degree student in the environmental interpretation program at ESF.