February 6, 2006

Deadly fungus threatens beloved Panamanian frog

By Mike Power

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - A deadly fungus is creeping through
Panama, killing hundreds of thousands of amphibians and putting
the country's national symbol, the golden frog, at risk of
extinction, scientists say.

"I would say that the golden frog was already in critical
danger, however, the advance of the fungus outbreak makes
matters worse to a point that this species is likely to become
extinct," said Roberto Ibanez, an amphibian expert at the
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

The rare golden frog is a much-loved national emblem that
graces Panama's lottery tickets and tourist brochures.
Schoolchildren are taught the story of the frogs, which,
according to pre-Columbian folklore, turn to gold upon death.

Panamanians believe that people who see the frog alive will
be blessed with good luck.

The mysterious mold threatening the frog is spreading
quickly in Panama, according to a report published by Southern
Illinois University on Monday. It grows over the animals' skin,
sealing it up and effectively choking them to death,

"Many frogs use their skin as we use our lungs. If it gets
blocked up, they die," said zoologist Karen Lips at Southern

A separate study published last month in the science
journal Nature cited global warming as a probable cause for the
proliferation of the fungus.

The frog is regarded by conservationists as being
critically endangered with an 80 percent decline in its
population predicted over the next 10 years.

A bright orange-yellow color with black spots, the golden
frog is little studied due to its scarcity. It has no eardrums
and communicates by a mysterious semaphore-like system of leg
and feet gesticulations.

"We don't have actual numbers on population size. Such
figures are notoriously difficult to confirm," said Ibanez.
"But the fungus has the capacity to completely wipe out
populations of any size, and if the fungus doesn't kill them,
the areas where they can be found are being deforested and
polluted or developed," he said.


Researchers from Southern Illinois say the fungus, which
causes the infectious disease chytridiomycosis that affects
amphibians, arrived in Panama in 1993 and was detected in El
Cope, an area near the Caribbean with many frogs, in October

Within four months, it had wiped out 57 out of a total of
70 frog, toad and salamander species, including many golden
frogs, in the area.

"The golden frog is already endangered because of habitat
loss and collecting for the pet trade," Lips said.

"It was one of the species we found dead and infected with
the fungus at El Cope. As far as we know, every species at the
site was probably infested with it and died," she said.

The fungus exists in much of the world and the Panama study
is the latest example of its potential to wipe out entire
amphibian populations.

Scientists do not know where the fungus came from, but it
has been spreading through the Americas, Australia and Europe
since 1970. Its first documented appearance was in South Africa
in the 1930s, Lips said.

"The amphibian fungus kills not only one species, but can
also kill species from across the amphibian taxonomic range,"
said Peter Daszak of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine
in New York, which studies links between environmental change,
health and biodiversity.

"It's as if we came across a disease that regularly kills
everyone in a city, but also dogs, cats, horses, whales, bats
and so on. It's a very unusual pathogen, with an incredible