Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Chytridiomycosis fungus killing off Ohio amphibians

Mayfield Village, Ohio – Spring may be growing quieter as a
worldwide pandemic fungal disease is killing off entire populations
of amphibians: frogs, toads, salamanders and similar creatures.

And Ohio is not immune from the chytridiomycosis fungus,
either.

Trying to grab hold of how widespread the fungus is in northeast
Ohio falls on the shoulders of Tim Krynak, a naturalist with
Cleveland Metroparks at North Chagrin Nature Center in Mayfield
Village.

For the past two summers, Krynak has led about 15 volunteers
working in five teams to determine amphibian populations throughout
the parks system and neighboring counties. It is expected to be an
ongoing study.

“We’ve sampled in Lake, Geauga, Medina and, of course, Cuyahoga
County. We still have a lot of data to analyze, though we’ve
collected more than 500 samples consisting of 21 amphibian
species,” Krynak said. “Of these, as many as 14 species have shown
to be positive for the fungus.”

Among the species in which the fungus has been detected are the
American toad, green frog, bull frog, spring peeper and spotted
salamander.

“We have a really nice amphibian population here in North
Chagrin Reservation, and we need to know what their status is.
That’s why we are sampling not just for the fungus, but also to see
what we have and in what numbers, trying to get a handle on
populations,” Krynak said.

“But we don’t have enough information yet to determine whether
these amphibians are dying from the fungus or something else,” he
said. “It’s just one piece in the puzzle.”

Mount Union College professor of biology and dean of math and
sciences Jonathan Scott said many people don’t understand how
important amphibians are for the environment, nor do they
understand how a simple fungus could be so fatal.

“Amphibian skin does more than just protect the creature’s
innards. It controls water balance, electrolyte balance and also is
used for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide,” Scott
said.

“Having the fungus is like dying from athlete’s foot, though we
don’t think of it that way,” he said.

Scientists are joining forces throughout Ohio to get a better
grasp of the scope of the problem, where it came from and how long
ago it appeared, said Greg Lipps, a Delta, Ohio herpetologist who
works through the DNR Division of Wildlife on amphibian issues.

“I’ve had the experience of coming across it a few times, but
last winter I found two populations of frogs with the disease:
northern leopard frogs and green frogs, both near Toledo,” Lipps
said.

Tim Matson, curator of vertebrate zoology at the Cleveland
Museum of Natural History, said there is some evidence to suggest
the fungus could have been in Ohio as early as the 1970s. Museum
samples from that period have tested positive for the disease,
according to Matson.

“It’s been here for a long time, but we just didn’t know it. It
is causing mortality, however,” Matson added.

“We have ponds where we have total loss and some species appear
to be much more sensitive than others,” he said. “But we don’t know
if it is because of the fungus, bacteria, toxic metals, a
combination of them or something else. What I can say is that we
are looking into it.”

Jefferson salamanders, spotted salamanders and wood frogs appear
to be the most vulnerable. Likewise, American toads have “declined
dramatically over the last 20 years,” Matson said.

“We just don’t see the numbers of toads we used to,” he
said.

Scott said one of the prevailing thoughts is the fungus
originated in Africa. It may have spread worldwide back in the
1930s when a specific species of frog was used extensively in
biological research and pregnancy testing. A possible carrier, this
frog species may have picked up the potential hitchhiking
fungus.

“Point is, those animals had been distributed for a long time.
They didn’t suffer from the disease, but they did carry it,” he
said.

The same is true in North America for the bullfrog, which acts
as a carrier host but doesn’t suffer fatally from the disease.

“And it’s possible that other amphibians in northeast Ohio may
be in the same position,” Scott said.

One of the hypothesis for the apparent lessened damage in Ohio
is because the state’s relative summer-time warmth could be giving
some protection to at least some amphibian species. All of which
seems strange, the scientists say, because many of the documented
massive amphibian deaths have occurred in the tropics.

“We do know there are certain differences in susceptibility, and
even though we think of the tropics as being universally hot, there
are locations in the mountains where the temperatures can be quite
cool,” Lipps said.

And it is these higher, cooler elevations in Central America and
North America where the disease appears to be particularly
virulent, the scientists all say.

“I believe the conclusion you can draw is that there is a very
widespread pathogen in our environment, and if you look long enough
you’ll find it,” Lipps said.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about the disease, so we
have to be concerned about spreading it around. For one thing,
field people working on the matter need to clean their boots to
help prevent the spread of the disease.”

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