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Fungal Disease Threatens Hundreds of Amphibian Species Worldwide

A new international study is the first to determine the comprehensive global impact of the deadly fungal disease chytridiomycosis—and the news is not good. The disease, which eats away at the skin of amphibians such as frogs, toads and salamanders, has caused dramatic population declines in more than 500 amphibian species—including 90 extinctions—within the past 50 years, according to the findings.

The study, led by researchers from the Australian National University with contributions from University of Maryland biology Professor Karen Lips, concluded that chytridiomycosis is singlehandedly responsible for the greatest loss of biodiversity due to a disease. The team published its findings in today’s issue of the journal Science.

“What’s new here is the worldwide picture of the numbers. For the first time, we’re able to look at the global scale and say how many species have been affected, how many have gone extinct and how many may have potential for recovery,” Lips said.

The researchers integrated data from a number of sources, including published and unpublished data from amphibian experts around the world and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. The team found that chytridiomycosis is present in more than 60 countries, with the most extensive losses concentrated in Australia, Central America and South America.

Of the 501 amphibian species found in decline, only one was directly attributable to B. salamandrivorans. The remaining 500 species’ declines and extinctions are linked directly to B. dendrobatidis—placing that fungal species on par with rats and cats in terms of the danger they present to other species worldwide.

The research team concluded that, although species declines peaked in the 1980s, 39 percent of those identified in the study are still experiencing losses today. The results offer some hope, however, suggesting that 12 percent of declined species have shown signs of recovery. This is consistent with recent work by Lips and her colleagues, which showed that some species in El Copé, Panama, had developed the ability to coexist with chytrid fungus.

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