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Amphibians and Other Mythical Creatures

Written By: JoCee Holladay


Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but the story of The Princess and the Frog isn’t real. If you kiss a frog, the frog won’t turn into a human prince, no matter how good of a kiss.


While the current generation of Disney movie lovers can laugh at the nonsensical story of a woman kissing a frog, turning into a frog herself, going on an adventure down the Bayou, and ultimately marrying a prince, this story is becoming even more unbelievable each year - because frogs are turning into mythical creatures.


Amphibians are quickly headed toward the same place as mammoths, sabertooth tigers, and dinosaurs – extinction. Amphibians are the fastest group of animals disappearing in the wild. A United Nations biodiversity committee estimated that 40% of all amphibians are at risk of extinction*, including over half of the world’s frogs.


Amphibians made their initial debut on Earth around 400 million years ago, meaning they have been around much longer than you, I, or any other mammal. They have been around longer than even dinosaurs and have a track record of survival. Amphibians survived the past four mass extinction events.


A mass extinction event is when a significant portion of biodiversity is wiped out in a short period of geologic time. These events are extremely rare; only five have occurred since life formed on Earth. The most famous mass extinction event was the most recent – when an asteroid wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and 75% of animals.


We are currently in the middle of a sixth mass extinction event – and also the cause of it. This mass extinction event seems to be the downfall of many animals, including amphibians. Almost half of frog and salamander species aren’t looking like they will survive.


There are many reasons for the declining numbers of amphibians – habitat loss, pollutants, climate change, and, terrifyingly, killer fungi are some of the top culprits. Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) is a fungus that has had deadly effects on frogs for the past 50 years. Bd isn’t new. It has been in the world since the early 1900s, but these fungi (like most living things before humans came around) were isolated to a tiny subsection of the planet. Creatures only roamed as far as they could travel on their legs – or the legs of the hosts they attached themselves to. Frogs living in the places where Bd evolved also evolved defense mechanisms for this fungus. But frogs residing where Bd didn’t exist didn’t need to defend against this disease and, as such, have no such defense mechanisms. Frogs in these locations are highly susceptible to the diseases caused by Bd.


Humans trample across the globe and (sometimes on purpose and other times on accident) spread invasive species to different parts of the world. Occasionally, traveling humans introduce a frog-killing fungus into a naive habitat that wipes out entire species of frogs in that area.**



This devastating spread of Bd happened in Panama. Although the first Bd frog endemics occurred in the 70s (possibly even earlier), Bd wasn’t observed in Panama until the late 90s. Like many other places in the world, frogs in Panama were unequipped to handle this new disease, and the result was deadly. In the 2000s, the disease rapidly spread through the country, killing thousands of frogs. Half of the native frog species became extinct, including the lucky Panamanian Golden Frog.


There hasn’t been a sighting of this (un)lucky Golden Frog in nature since 2009, but these famous frogs, among others, still exist in captivity. Many frogs were collected and saved through conservation efforts and captive breeding programs. They live in shelters where Bd is removed (by bathing everything, including the frogs themselves, in bleach). The outlook of these frogs being reintroduced into their natural habitat isn’t good. Bd continues to spread and thrive, and frog habitats continue to be demolished by humans.


Extinction is a very normal process. Over 98% of all species ever to live on Earth are now extinct. But the amount of species currently going extinct right now isn’t average. The “background rate” of extinction is about one to five species lost yearly. We are presently witnessing 100 times the background extinction rate. Species of turtles, monkeys, rhinos, tigers, and dolphins, to name a few, are critically endangered. Amphibians are going extinct the fastest, and we need heroes to save them. But it won’t require kisses to save the (remaining) frogs; it will take more environmentally conscious princesses and princes.



Footnotes:

* In comparison, 25% of mammals and 13% of birds are at risk of extinction.

** This happens more often than you think. Studies have shown that all major strains of Bd are present in pet-shop animals.


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