MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We switch gears now from politics to science and the quest to squash a fungus that's killing off the stock of frogs around the world. Last year, environment Sabri Ben-Achour joined local researchers on a trip to Panama to document the effort to rescue some increasingly rare amphibians. Today, we bring you part two of the story and find out how much of this research started in our own backyard.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
In a darkened room in Panama Summit Zoo, keeper Angie Estrada is about to open some very special packages.
MS. ANGIE ESTRADA
It's been a long trip for them so we're trying to do things quick and not stress them out any more.
Wrapped inside wet balls of moss are six endangered frogs. A field team spent weeks searching for them in a mountain forest where human introduced fungal plague has caused mass die-offs.
Okay. Are you ready? So this is the first frog. I don't know what it is.
Estrada carefully teases away the strands of moss until a tiny hand with four little yellow fingers appears.
Is he alive? Damn it, he's not alive.
Not only is this frog dead, it's not even the especially rare one she was hoping for.
But it's like what we expected to happen with Kittredge. It's moving too fast.
Rescued frogs and their prodigy can now be found in zoos from Germany to Panama. Some are the last of their kind and exist only in captivity. Reid Harris is a professor of biology at James Madison University in Virginia.
DR. REID HARRIS
But these amphibians remain susceptible so even if you're able to breed them in the lab, you can't really put them back into the rainforest because the Kittredge fungus is still there.
And while thinking about this problem and doing research in Virginia's George Washington National Forest, he noticed something in the salamanders he was looking at.
The females would actually squirm through the eggs periodically. If the female or the parent deserted the nest, fungus would take over the nest fairly soon and there would be virtually no survival of the offspring.
Harris' observation eventually led to the discovery of a bacteria on the skin of the salamanders. That bacteria protected the animals against fungal attack.
DR. VANCE VREDENBURG
When I heard about that, when my colleagues and I heard about that study, we immediately got in touch with Reid and said, well, maybe that could help explain what's going on out here in California where we have these mountain yellow-legged frogs that are dying from this fungus.
That is Vance Vredenburg at San Francisco State University. The yellow-legged frogs in the Sierra Nevadas were experiencing the same kinds of die-offs as in Panama.
When I started working on this problem, we had 500 or so populations remaining of these frogs. We're down to less than 80 populations left. So they are just dropping like flies.
But he found a few small populations of frogs that survived and on their skin, he found the same protective bacteria. He isolated it in the lab, grew broths full of it and gave it to more frogs up in the mountains.
Basically, we just captured individual frogs and then we just give them a little bacterial bath. So we -- it looks like soup.
And it worked, yes. I mean, it looks like it worked. I went up there in mid-July and saw, I think, 23 frogs. That was it, just 23 frogs. But of those 23, every single one was an experimental frog that got bacteria in 2010.
Those results are encouraging for Brian Gratwick, a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian.
MR. BRIAN GRATWICK
This is the only tool that we can think of at the moment that has a lot of promise in allowing a frog to be reintroduced back into the wild and survive Kittredge.
As Gratwick speaks, he swabs a bright yellow Panamanian golden frog in a lab in Front Royal, Virginia. Graduate students at Virginia Tech sifted through 500 species of bacteria on surviving frogs from Panama looking for ones that fought Kittredge. They found 50. Now they're hoping one of those will stick to the golden frog, which is believed to be extinct in the wild.
MS. KAREN LIPS
I'm quite skeptical. Having seen what I've seen in the past 20 years, I can't imagine anything is going to be the miracle cure.
Karen Lips is a researcher at the University of Maryland who was among the first to document die-offs. She says it's unlikely anyone will be spraying bacteria from a plane and it's not clear if the bacteria will be passed from frog to frog in the wild, though there is some promising research in that direction.
Big scale, I mean, I think we have to depend on Mother Nature, on evolution and, you know, hope for the best and do everything we can to sort of stack the deck on the side of the frogs.
In other words, these microbes discovered on the backs of salamanders in the Appalachian Mountains may buy amphibians around the world just little bit of time. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
To see pictures of frogs getting bacterial baths and to get your very own frog ringtone, head to our website, metroconnection.org.
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