Across the globe in the past few decades, an invasive chytrid fungus has been devastating amphibian populations. While scientists aren’t sure how the frog-killing form of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis swept the planet, many suspect it traveled by the importing and exporting of amphibians for food or the pet trade. It’s also possible birds or storms were the carriers.
Once the disease arrives in a region, tadpoles can pick up chytrid spores from the water where they live. At the stage when a tadpole starts metamorphosing into an adult, the disease becomes most aggressive. During that time, a frog’s body suppresses its immune system to allow the change in form. That lets the fungus interfere with the keratin in a frog’s skin, making it hard for the animal to breathe and regulate electrolytes, often leading to a heart attack.
Worldwide, hundreds of amphibian species have become endangered or gone extinct due to the fungus; in 2010, it was reported that a single forest in Panama lost 30 amphibian species in about a year.
Now, however, in the cloud forest of Cusuco National Park in northwestern Honduras, a new, biosecure frog health clinic—called the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center—is being set up inside some used shipping containers.
Inside the “container clinic,” Jonathan Kolby, a National Geographic explorer and Ph.D. student in conservation biology at Australia’s James Cook University, and his colleagues are taking an innovative approach toward treating three threatened species of Honduran endemic tree frogs: the Cusuco spike-thumb frog (Plectrohyla dasypus), the exquisite spike-thumb frog (Plectrohyla exquisita) and the mossy red-eyed frog (Duellmanohyla soralia). Since developing frogs seem to be the most susceptible to chytrid, Kolby plans to capture young frogs, clear them of the fungus through medication or heat treatments, tag them for future follow-up and then, when they are full-grown adults, release them back into the wild.
It’s hoped that the frogs that survive the fungus will pass down their resistance or at least produce stronger offspring, helping the animals to adapt to the threat faster than evolution alone. Even if that doesn’t happen, Kolby says that the endangered frogs will be more likely to survive if there are more of them out there producing tadpoles.
It sounds like a good plan. Unfortunately, chytrid isn’t the only danger the frogs are facing. Their homes are vanishing fast. Illegal loggers are increasingly cutting down the cloud forest, and the government of Honduras has few funds with which to enforce the boundaries of the park.
Luckily, there’s some good news on this front, too. The British nonprofit Operation Wallacea is working with the Honduras government to develop a plan that would bring in foreign investment to the park in exchange for guarantees not to cut the trees—in a form of carbon credits.
Watch the short video below from National Geographic and meet some of the frogs of Honduras. While amphibians may not be as charismatic as some other endangered animals, such as polar bears or whales, they are just as important for the environment. Frogs eat large quantities of insects, including disease vectors that can transmit fatal illnesses to humans, and serve as a food source to a diverse array of predators. And their disappearance would likely increase algal blooms, reduce aquatic invertebrate diversity and reduce water quality.
Besides, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And I do happen to think they’re kind of cute.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,