A Fungus Is Wiping Out Australia’s Unique Frogs

The chytrid fungus has already decimated multiple frog species on the continent, but an infusion of cash could help save them.
Southern corroboree frog at Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales, Australia. (Photo: Auscape/Getty Images)
Apr 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Seven of Australia’s most beautiful and unique frog species face the imminent threat of extinction from the deadly chytrid fungus, researchers have warned.

First identified in 1998, the fungus induces respiratory blockages in infected animals, slowly killing them. Chytrid has already triggered dozens of amphibian extinctions around the world, including six Australian frog species.

Now the continent’s two species of corroboree frog, along with the Baw Baw frog, spotted tree frog, Kroombit tinker frog, armoured mist frog, and Tasmanian tree frog, could follow in the next few years.

According to a paper published Monday in the journal Wildlife Research, each of these species has fewer than 2,000 individuals left in the wild. In the case of the southern corroboree frog, the number may be fewer than 50.

Most of these species were already recognized as critically endangered, but researchers say little is being done to protect them or boost their populations. “This problem has been neglected,” said Lee Berger, one of the study’s authors and a senior research fellow at Queensland’s James Cook University.

Berger pointed to the Kroombit tinker frog, “which could become extinct without anyone noticing.” The species, which lives in a single mountain rainforest, is only periodically monitored, and no captive breeding program exists.

Tasmanian tree frog. (Photo: Ted Mead/Getty Images)

So how do you go about fighting a frog fungus? Research and cash, to start.

In the study, the authors call for increased monitoring, research, and other protective management efforts for the imperiled species, along with $11.5 million in funding over the next five years, which would serve to create a “chytrid working group” capable of taking action for frog species throughout Australia. But funding could be hard to come by, as Australia’s budgets for wildlife conservation have been slashed over the past few years.

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“It doesn’t all need to come from government,” Berger said. “We are hoping philanthropists may take an interest.”

Berger said increased monitoring of wild populations would be the easiest and most cost-effective step toward saving these species.

“Monitoring is not difficult and can easily utilize motivated field biologists as well as volunteers, an approach which has had support in the past,” she said. “At the moment, for some species, monitoring relies on a few keen individuals going out in their spare time.” She said all the species need increased levels of support to ensure that monitoring continues and becomes more systematic.

Captive breeding programs could help too, and in some cases, they already have. Zoos have successfully bred the Baw Baw frog and southern corroboree frog, and both would most likely survive in captivity even if their wild populations die out.

But to really target the problem, more research is required on several fronts.

Losing these frog species would make Earth “a much more boring place,” Berger said, and their extinction could have domino effects on their habitats. But with so little knowledge about the species, exactly what will happen if they disappear remains a mystery.

“The unique role of these frogs in the ecosystem has not been assessed,” Berger said. “We may not work it out until they are gone.”

The paper identifies an additional 22 Australian frog species at risk from chytrid but notes that many of those species have never been thoroughly researched. The authors also call for increased efforts to understand where at-risk frog species live and what can be done to preserve their habitats. They also want to identify safe new habitats in case threatened populations need to be relocated.