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Experts aim to stop frog-killing fungus

122 species extinct from fatal disease

A tree frog perches on the hand of a biologist  at the National Zoo in Washington, on Monday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A tree frog perches on the hand of a biologist at the National Zoo in Washington, on Monday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Brett Zongker Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Zoos in the U.S., Panama and Mexico are deploying researchers in Central America to develop new ways to fight a fungus blamed for wiping out dozens of frog and amphibian species as part of a project announced Monday.

The Smithsonian Institution is leading six other zoos and institutes in the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, which aims to raise $1.5 million to fight the fast-spreading chytrid fungus.

Their protection efforts will focus on a small slice of Panama that is the only area in Central America that appears to be untouched by the disease, said Dr. Karen Lips, a University of Maryland researcher. Lips said it’s only a matter of time, though, before even that area is hit with the fungus – perhaps five years.

The speed at which the fungus has spread is “absolutely incredible,” she said. “It’s probably much worse than we even appreciate.”

Scientists say the chytrid fungus threatens to wipe out a vast number of the approximately 6,000 known amphibian species and is spreading quickly. Already, 122 amphibian species are believed to have gone extinct in the last 30 years, primarily because of the fungus, conservationists say.

“We’re looking at losing half of all amphibians in our lifetime,” said Brian Gratwicke, the Smithsonian’s lead scientist on the project.

The fungus has been found in 87 countries, including the United States.

Scientists involved in the project will work on implementing recently published research from James Madison University in Virginia that shows bacteria in frogs’ skin can be used to fight the fungal infection.

Frogs bathed in a mixture containing the bacteria and then exposed to the fungus had a 100 percent survival rate in the study published in the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal, said Professor Reid Harris. The survival rate was low for another set of frogs that didn’t get the bath.

Applications for the research could include a spray to help build frogs’ resistance to the fungus or benign, fungus-fighting bacteria strong enough to pass from one frog to another.

“It’s a very exciting discovery,” Gratwicke said. “It’s really the only thing we’ve got going.”

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