Jun 14

The deadly amphibian disease chytridiomycosis has reached what was the last disease-free region of Central America, according to scientists from the Smithsonian.

Photo of golden arrow poison frog on stone

The golden arrow poison frog, or Panamanian golden frog, may already be extinct in the wild due to chytridiomycosis.

Worrying news for Panama’s amphibians

Chytridiomycosis is a fungal disease that has been linked to dramatic amphibian declines worldwide, and it is thought to be at least partly responsible for a number of amphibian extinctions. This rapidly-spreading disease has now been confirmed near Panama’s Darien region, which had been the last area in the entire mountainous Neotropics to be free of chytridiomycosis.

The Darien National Park is one of Central America’s largest remaining wilderness areas, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2007, Doug Woodhams, a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, tested frogs at a site bordering Darien. At that time, no individuals tested positive for the disease, but by January 2010, 2% of tested frogs were infected.

According to Woodhams, “Finding chytridiomycosis on frogs at a site bordering the Darien happened much sooner than anyone predicted. The unrelenting and extremely fast-paced spread of this fungus is alarming.”

Photo of Pirre Mountain frog on leaf

The Pirre Mountain frog, or Pirre harlequin frog, is being bred in captivity by the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.

Frog conservation in Panama

Panama has around 200 frog species, and about 50 of these are currently facing extinction.

Chytridiomycosis has already had a catastrophic effect on frog populations in other parts of Panama. Within five months of arriving at El Cope in western Panama, chytridiomycosis had eliminated half of the frog species there and killed about 80% of all individuals. The arrival of the disease near Darien is therefore alarming news for its frog populations.

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is working in Panama to rescue frog species in imminent danger of extinction, and has already established captive colonies of two species endemic to Darien – the Pirre Mountain frog and the Toad Mountain harlequin frog. An active breeding programme is also underway at the Smithsonian National Zoo to save the Panamanian golden frog, or golden arrow poison frog, a Critically Endangered species which is Panama’s national animal.

Photo of dorsal profile of juvenile Toad Mountain harlequin frog

The Toad Mountain harlequin frog, another Panamanian species being bred in captivity.

We would like to save all of the species in the Darien, but there isn’t time to do that now,” said Brian Gratwicke, a biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and international coordinator of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. “Our project is one of a few to take an active stance against the probable extinction of these species. We have already succeeded in breeding three species in captivity. Time may be running out, but we are looking for more resources to take advantage of the time that remains.”

Tackling chytridiomycosis

Scientists are working hard to find ways to combat chytridiomycosis in amphibian populations.

These animals that we are breeding in captivity will buy us some time as we find a way to control this disease in the wild and mitigate the threat directly,” said Woodhams, who was also the lead author of a recent paper which reviewed strategies for controlling chytridiomycosis.

Photo of lemur leaf frog head detail

The Critically Endangered lemur leaf frog occurs in Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia, and is believed to have declined due to chytridiomycosis.

One potentially important discovery in the efforts to find a cure for the devastating fungus is that some Panamanian frogs have anti-chytrid bacteria on their skin, and may transmit beneficial bacteria and skin chemicals to their offspring. These findings were recently published in the journal Biotropica. According to Gratwicke, “Woodhams’ discovery that defenses can indeed be transferred from parent to offspring gives us hope that if we are successful in developing a cure in the lab, we may find a way to use it to save wild amphibians.”

Read more on this story from the Smithsonian at Science Daily – Deadly amphibian disease found in the last disease-free region of Central America.

Find out more about the Amphibian Conservation Program at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

View photos and videos of threatened amphibians on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

  • Terri (June 17th, 2011 at 9:47 pm):

    Such beautiful creatures…

  • sundus zahid (March 6th, 2013 at 12:42 pm):

    Nature has given many things so beauty and these are one of them. Every specie is beautiful.