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.)


ScienceDaily has summarized a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives that shows atrazine harms the development of organs, such as the heart, in baby amphibians.  Other studies have pointed to problems that the common weed killer has caused with other stages of development, but this is the first to study the impact on organ morphogenesis, or organ development. The scientists did the experiment on Xenopus laevis, or African clawed frogs. That species is the one that was shipped around the world in the 1930s and 1940s for human pregnancy tests — and unwittingly carried with it the amphibian chytrid fungus. You decide if that’s ironical.

St. Louis Zoo chief Jefrrey Bonner has some one-on-one time with Kermit when the Assocation of Zoos & Aquariums brought the duo to the U.S. Capitol building to lobby for amphibian protection measures.

Our sex life started destroying amphibians when we exported the African clawed frog as a pregnancy test in the 1930s. A half century later, our use of the pill started changing the gender of frogs and salamanders. Read on…

The St. Louis Zoo’s Jeffrey Bonner (who also is chairman of Amphibian Ark) has written another very original article on the amphibian crisis,in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In this one he makes a connection between the spread of pollen (“the sex life of trees”) and the spread of the frog killing chytrid fungus (ultimately connected to the sex life of humans). It’s a fascinating observation, one I’ve not read before. The excerpt:

Several years ago, I attended a seminar in Washington. It was spring — cherry blossom time. I was sneezing like crazy. Our speaker also had allergies, and he apologized for his sniffles. Being a biologist, he explained it this way, “Sorry for all the sneezing. It seems I’ve become an inadvertent participant in the sex life of trees.” He was right, of course. We sneeze because we have an immune reaction to the pollen, or sex cells, which trees spread in the spring.

If frogs could speak, perhaps they’d say the same thing about amphibian chytrid. It would have taken forever for chytrid to spread out of South Africa had it not been for the actions of humans, harvesting infected frogs and air-mailing them around the planet for pregnancy tests. The frogs, it would seem, were an inadvertent participant in the sex lives of humans.

We can allow hundreds of amphibian species to face quietly into oblivion, or we can take action now to spare their lives. I hope the choice we make is the humane one.

Jeffrey Bonner is president of the St. Louis Zoo. He also is the chairman of the Amphibian Ark, the global effort to save 500 critically endangered species and place them in “protective custody” in zoos and aquariums around the world. 

Interestingly, Dr. Bonner earlier had written about modern birth control pills and their impact on amphibians — i.e., the heightened estrogen levels in our urine is reaching streams and deforming species. That story was extremely interesting, as well. In it, he wrote:

Of equal concern is many of the common drugs we consume. Their contents pass through our bodies, into sewage treatment plants and back into our rivers and streams. Estrogen, the active ingredient in many birth control pills, is one of these. In frogs, low levels of estrogen cause exposed tadpoles to become female; under normal conditions, half develop female and half develop male.



Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the African Clawed Frog was discovered to be a heck of a good pregnancy test. The species is indigenous to southern Africa and is immune to something else indigenous to the region — chytrid fungus. So when the frog was shipped around the world for this medical use, it brought the chytrid fungus along for the ride.  Wherever the fungus took root in countless new places around the world, it was fatal to 80% of the new species it encountered. So what’s it really do? See “TBS Program…” post from yesterday. Or here are two articles: a good overview by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service and one filled with science jargon by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.