Great to see Dr. Karen Lips comment on the Panama Canal breach of the frog-killing fungus. This is from The Scientist, specifically from a post dated Oct. 17 (full story here):

“The findings are a concern because it means the fungus will continue to move through eastern Panama, and we only have a [limited time] to do what we can to save the frogs, collect data, watch,” Karen Lips, herpetologist at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, who monitors frogs populations in Panama, told The Scientist in an Email.

“There has never been any evidence that anything can stop the spread” of the fungus, Lips said. “It made it through Mexico and the Nicaraguan depression, so the narrow strip that is the canal is no significant barrier, nor did we expect it to be.”

Although the fungus may have spread across the canal on its own, the paper suggests that humans facilitated its jump across the canal, added Lips.

Maybe it wasn’t a chytrid-infected frog hopping the canal. Maybe it was scientists or tourists carrying the fungus on the soles of their shoes. A new report on the Panama Canal breach by the frog-killing chytrid fungus contains new, helpful perspective. Mongabay.com’s Rhett A. Butler writes, among other things, that:

“…there has been cautious hope that the Panama Canal would serve as a natural barrier to slow or even stop the spread of Chytrid to eastern Panama, a particularly species-rich region that had so far avoided the decimation seen in western Panama and Costa Rica. Now an international team of researchers report that Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has been detected in three species east of the Panama Canal at Soberanía National Park. Although the scientists note that the results are preliminary and more work needs to be done to determine the origin and incidence of the Chytridiomycosis in Soberanía, the finding is bad news for Panama’s amphibians.

“The scientists say that physical barriers to the spread of Chytrid — including salt water, deforested lowlands where high temperatures kill the fungus, and the Panama Canal — are being “easily overcome” in Panama by “human movement of the pathogen”. In other words, human activities like tourism, scientific research, and construction are facilitating the epidemic. The authors suggest that measures to reduce transportation of Chytrid such as ‘bleaching boots and cleaning field gear between sites, and providing information at eco-lodges’ could help contain the disease.”

When the Titanic hit the iceberg, the crew first told the passengers not to worry. And now that scientists have discovered that a frog killing fungus has somehow jumped the Panama Canal into eastern Panama, they’re explaining it to us in calm, collected prose: “Our results suggest that Panama’s diverse and not fully described amphibian communities east of the canal are at risk. Precise predictions of future disease emergence events are not possible until factors underlying disease emergence, such as dispersal, are understood. However, if the fungal pathogen spreads in a pattern consistent with previous disease events in Panama, then detection of Bd at Tortı´ and other areas east of the Panama Canal is imminent.”

Somebody please sound the alarm and get the frogs into the lifeboats. (More on that in a second.) The discovery that the chytrid fungus has hopped the Panama Canal is the equivalent of a stock market crash for amphibians, and it should strike fear in the heart of every conservationist. Central and South America are home to the planet’s critical mass of ampihbian species.

I’ll be writing about the discovery more in future posts, but for now, go to the scientists’ report in EcoHealth here.

Scientists have feared for some time that the canal would not hold back the spread of chytrid, which clogs amphibians’ delicate skin and basically chokes them to death because they breath through their miraculous skin. This disease, which is indigenous to southern Africa, was accidentally spread around the world in the mid 1900s. The African clawed frog, also indigenous to southern Africa, is immune to the disease and when the medical world discovered the species could be used as a pregnancy test — details here – it was shipped around the world, carrying the disease with it. Chytrid is fatal to 80 percent of amphibian species and has vanquished more than 100 species over the past 20 years.

Which brings us to Amphibian Ark, the organization I support that is in charge of the plan to avert the mass extinction of amphibian species. Studies predict that up to half of the 6,000 amphibian species will go extinct in our lifetime unless emergency measures are taken. It’s not just chytrid killing them off, but also habitat loss, pollution, and global warming. Amphibian Ark organizes zoos and conservation organizations to pluck the most endangered species from the wild, before they vanish, and put them into the “protective custody” of biosecure containers (or “lifeboats”) for breeding. Once the species are brought back to a critical mass population, they can be reintroduced into the wild.

It costs $100,000 to do the work and build the facilities to save one amphibian species. It’s a bargain.

I don’t think I’ve written such a “dramatic” post in this blog, but folks, if there was ever a time to get fired up and take action, this is the moment. The Panama Canal jump is a major breach.

Find out how to help at Amphibian Ark’s Web site. Tell other people. Please. More soon. Can you believe this is happening during the year of the frog?

(I’m grateful for the scientists’ discovery of the Panama Canal jump and don’t mean to be critical of the way they’re writing about the discovery. I know these scientists are passionate about saving amphibians. They’ve just been trained to write in science speak. That’s their job.)

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