Local Scientists Take Stock Of An Amphibious Species On The Brink (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Microbes May Come To The Rescue Of Endangered Frogs

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
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

00:00:27
In a darkened room in Panama Summit Zoo, keeper Angie Estrada is about to open some very special packages.

MS. ANGIE ESTRADA

00:00:33
It's been a long trip for them so we're trying to do things quick and not stress them out any more.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:40
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.

ESTRADA

00:00:51
Okay. Are you ready? So this is the first frog. I don't know what it is.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:56
Estrada carefully teases away the strands of moss until a tiny hand with four little yellow fingers appears.

ESTRADA

00:01:04
Is he alive? Damn it, he's not alive.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:08
Not only is this frog dead, it's not even the especially rare one she was hoping for.

ESTRADA

00:01:13
But it's like what we expected to happen with Kittredge. It's moving too fast.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:18
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

00:01:30
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:40
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.

HARRIS

00:01:47
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:59
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

00:02:08
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:20
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.

VREDENBURG

00:02:29
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:39
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.

VREDENBURG

00:02:52
Basically, we just captured individual frogs and then we just give them a little bacterial bath. So we -- it looks like soup.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:58
And...

VREDENBURG

00:02:59
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:15
Those results are encouraging for Brian Gratwick, a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian.

MR. BRIAN GRATWICK

00:03:20
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:32
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

00:03:54
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:01
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.

LIPS

00:04:17
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:28
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.

SHEIR

00:04:43
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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