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Scientists Say Amphibian Die-Offs Hit Area Years Ago

Fungal infection now spread worldwide

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Plethodon glutinosus, also known as a Northern Slimy Salamander.
Plethodon glutinosus, also known as a Northern Slimy Salamander.

Local scientists suspect a fungal plague that's caused amphibian extinctions worldwide may have swept through this area several decades ago. Area scientists are seeking evidence to determine if that's the case.

Karen Lips is a researcher at the University of Maryland. She's looking at a map of the Appalachian mountains, and everywhere there is a red X, they have noted a decline in salamanders.

"I see a lot of red X's," says Lips. "Yeah there's a lot of red X's; 88 percent of the places over this 50-year period had definitely declined by some amount."

Her colleague at the University, Dick Highton, catalogued declines at thousands of sites throughout the Appalachians since the 1950s.  The question, of course, is why the declines? Highton says there are a lot of possibilities: "There's too many people, traffic, habitat loss, acid rain from the Midwest, all these things."

Lips thinks that maybe, possibly, it's because a fungal plague called amphibian batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (bd) or chytrid swept through the region right under everyone's noses several decades ago. It's the same plague that's been blamed for hundreds of extinctions and die offs worldwide. It has most likely spread with help from humans, and it works by eating away at the skin of amphibians. To find out if her suspicion is right, Lips and her graduate students are going back in time -- to the Smithsonian -- where half century old samples of Appalachian amphibians are preserved.

"We can see the animals that used to live there 50 years ago in a museum. We can analyze them, we can swab them for bd now, and see if bd actually occurred sometime in the past and whether or not the timing of bd had anything to do with these declines. Or was it an el nino year or whatever."

It's a mystery in our own back yard that could shed light on extinctions occurring around the world.

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