Climate, Disease, & Amphibians

“Fueled by warm weather, ‘this infection kills steadily and slowly
over the course of summer,’ Green says.”

” ‘… this wicked-looking organism is very primitive’ and appears
to ‘phylogenetically sit at the spot where animals and fungi diverged.’ ”
Science News Online
Week of Nov. 24, 2007; Vol. 172, No. 21

Tadpole Slayer: Mystery epidemic imperils frogs
Janet Raloff

From Alaska to Florida, a novel and yet-unnamed protozoan is knocking off tadpoles. Species vulnerable to “the beast” belong to the genus Rana, which includes leopard frogs, green frogs, and bullfrogs, says ecologist John C. Maerz.

His team at the University of Georgia in Athens stumbled across mass die-offs of southern leopard frog tadpoles in nearby ponds last year. Dissection showed the animals’ innards peppered with spherical, one-celled parasites. Genetic testing confirmed these are loosely related to Perkinsus, a disease-causing organism that affects marine shellfish.

Maerz’ group now offers the first published photos of the pathogen and descriptions of its effects in the September EcoHealth. Infected tadpoles become lethargic and developmentally stunted, the Georgia scientists report. Although the mystery parasite infects all organs, it clusters in the liver, sometimes tripling that organ’s size and giving the false impression that an animal is fat and robust. So many protozoa swamped and killed tissue in the liver of one sick tadpole, Maerz recalls, that throughout most of the organ “we could find no identifiable liver cells.”

He notes that his team did not discover the pathogen. It was first found by veterinary pathologist D. Earl Green of the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisc., part of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Since 1999, Green has quietly been recording a steady and growing incidence of the novel infection in frogs sent to his lab. All came from east of the Mississippi except for two outliers: frogs from Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, several years ago, and one sample that he ran across 3 weeks ago from the West Coast.

Fueled by warm weather, “this infection kills steadily and slowly over the course of summer,” Green says. Although it targets tadpoles, there’s a chance that adults could also carry it and serve as amphibian Typhoid Marys.

When Green can steal a moment, he intends to publish his experiences with the pathogen-and name it. But that may require yet a bit more information on the shape of its mitochondria, explains Sanford H. Feldman of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a collaborator on Green’s studies. Feldman says his work indicates that “this wicked-looking organism is very primitive” and appears to “phylogenetically sit at the spot where animals and fungi diverged.”

It’s one of only three infectious agents capable of causing large die-offs of amphibians-almost all of which are in decline the world over. To date, the new protozoan has been reported only in the United States, Green says, where it has emerged as the “principal threat” that could lead to extinction of the Mississippi gopher frog. This amphibian’s sole wild population breeds in only one infected pond, where for at least 4 years virtually all tadpoles have died.

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Davis, A.K. . . . and J.C. Maerz. 2007. Discovery of a novel alveolate pathogen affecting southern leopard frogs in Georgia: Description of the disease and host effects. EcoHealth 4(September):310-317. Abstract available at

Green, D.E., S.H. Feldman, and J. Wimsatt. 2003. Emergence of a Perkinsus-like agent in anuran liver during die-offs of local populations: PCR detection and phylogenetic characterization. Proceedings of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians 2003:120-121.

Further Readings:

Milius, S. 2000. Colossal study shows amphibian
woes. Science News 157(April 15):247. Available

______. 2000. New frog-killing disease may not be
so new. Science News 157(Feb. 26):247. Available

Raloff, J. 2005. Save the frogs. Science News
168(Oct. 1):222. Available to subscribers at

______. 2005. Ozone saps toads’ immune systems.
Science News 167(Feb. 5):94. Available to
subscribers at

______. 2002. More frog trouble: Herbicide may
emasculate wild males. Science News 162(Nov.
2):275. Available at

______. 1998. Common pesticide clobbers
amphibians. Science News 154(Sept. 5):150.
Available at


Declining Amphibian Populations TaskForce
Web site:

Sanford H. Feldman
Center for Comparative Medicine
University of Virginia
Information Technology and Communication
Box 800737
Charlottesville, VA 22908

D. Earl Green
Natinal Wildlife Health Center
U.S. Geological Survey
6006 Schroeder Road
Madison, WI 53711

John C. Maerz
D.B. Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources
University of Georgia
Athens, GA

From Science News, Vol. 172, No. 21, Nov. 24, 2007, p. 325.

Copyright (c) 2007 Science Service. All rights reserved.


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