If the last tree frog of its kind slips away, does the world notice? It’s a question weighing heavily on the minds of all who were familiar with Toughie, the last Rabbs’ Fringe-Limbed tree frog known to be alive on Earth today.
Captured by Amphibian Conservation Coordinator Mark Mandica after a fungus began wiping the creatures out in Panama prior to 2005, “Toughie” was aptly named and managed to survive – albeit perhaps maybe not thrive – in captivity for an astonishing 10 years.
Mandica was dedicated enough to record every detail of Toughie’s existence in his research notebook and files, but for the little Rabbs’ tree frog, it was simply too late.
Surviving is not living, and Toughie – a frog who should joyfully sing most of his days away in search of a mate – stopped singing shortly after he was captured and never made a peep again. There he sat on his log, in silence, waiting for what could only be the untimely end to his entire species.
Although there is little we can do for Toughie’s brethren now that they’re gone, what we can do is make sure the world understands what led to the decline in the first place – the fatal chytrid fungus, better known to scientists as chytridiomycosis. This fungus doesn’t just prey on the Rabb’s tree frog; it also attacks a number of other amphibians, including other frogs, toads, salamanders, and various aquatic creatures.
What Is Chytridiomycosis?
Chytridiomycosis is caused by a bacterium by the name of batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. This rather foul little fellow has both hair-like rhizoids and tentacle-like sporangia, and embeds itself into the keratinous layer of tissue on an amphibian’s skin. Because it specializes in keratinized amphibian skin, it doesn’t affect humans or other mammals directly – at least, not yet. It impacts the host and spreads itself via cysts under the skin that eventually burst or drain. Chytridiomycosis is extremely contagious because, as a pathogen, it is soil borne, water borne, parasite borne, and capable of transfer via direct contact. All a frog needs to do is swim in an infected waterway, and they are at risk. Furthermore, even if cysts drain and never reach another frog, they can re-infect the host, eventually leading to far too much tissue damage for the frog to survive.
A Potential Cure
Fungus is one of the most quickly-growing threats to the animals in our world. Heightened temperatures due to climate change and humidity provide the perfect breeding ground for most fungal diseases, allowing them to proliferate in a very short period of time. White nose syndrome in brown bats is another example; in some areas of the Northern United States and southern Canada entire populations have died off due to the disease.
Fortunately, scientists like Mark work hard, trusty lab notebook and plenty of patience in hand, to discover cures that preserve the diversity found here on earth, saving animals and allowing them to thrive long into the future.
Recently, the Imperial College of London stumbled on a cure: environmental sterilization and antifungal treatments in tandem. With this approach, they were able to cure almost an entire localized population of Mallocran midwide toads.
It may be too late for Toughie and his bloodline, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue this valuable research; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The better we understand amphibians and the fungal diseases that impact them, the more likely it is that the world will be able to preserve their extremely important spot in natural ecologies for centuries to come.
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