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Frog ‘Saunas’ a Lifeline for Endangered Species

Specially designed shelters could help endangered frogs survive the devastating impacts of a deadly disease by regulating their body temperature to fight off infections.

Researchers at Macquarie University, led by 2022 Schmidt Science Fellow Anthony Waddle, have developed a “mini-med spa” for amphibians, using heat as a simple and effective way to help endangered frogs survive a devastating pandemic impacting multiple species.

“In these simple little hotspots, frogs can go and heat up their bodies to a temperature that destroys the infections,” said Dr. Waddle.

The research, published in the journal Nature, offers a potential lifeline for fast-declining populations like the green and golden bell frog (Litoria aurea), which has disappeared from more than 90 per cent of its former native range in Australia.

In collaboration with the University of Melbourne, researchers homed in on the fungal disease chytridiomycosis (chytrid), which has already driven at least six amphibian species to extinction in Australia and threatens dozens more worldwide.

Schmidt Science Fellow Dr Anthony Waddle holding a frog
Schmidt Science Fellow Dr Anthony Waddle.

Conservation biologist Dr. Waddle, at Macquarie University’s Applied BioSciences, said very few interventions address the impacts of the international spread of the disease-causing chytrid fungus.

“In the 25 years since chytrid was identified as a major cause of the global collapse of amphibian populations, our results are the first to provide a simple, inexpensive and widely applicable strategy to buffer frogs against this disease,” Dr. Waddle said.

The research team found artificial ‘hotspot’ shelters built from readily available materials, such as bricks and PVC greenhouses, can allow frogs to quickly ‘bake off’ infections with the chytrid fungus. 

When frogs shifted to hotspot shelters, chytrid infections were reduced significantly.
“The whole thing is like a mini med spa for frogs,” said Dr. Waddle. 

The study also showed that frogs who survive a chytrid infection can develop a form of acquired immunity, making them more resistant to future infections. 

“Lowering mortality rates and boosting their immunity to chytrid is the key to protecting amphibians from this disease, which is now endemic around the world,” said Dr. Waddle.

Chytrid typically establishes itself permanently once it spreads to a new environment and has caused greater damage to global biodiversity than any other recorded disease or invasive species.

Of chytrid-stricken species worldwide, 90 have gone extinct or are presumed extinct in the wild. Another 124 species have declined in number by more than 90 percent.

Senior author Professor Rick Shine from Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences said the study has demonstrated a simple intervention that can easily be scaled up, potentially helping reduce the impact of the deadly chytrid pandemic.

The research team is now working on expanding the study and implementing the hotspot shelters in one of the largest and most vulnerable populations of green and golden bell frogs, at Sydney Olympic Park.

Read an extended article on The Lighthouse – Macquarie University’s multi-media publishing platform.

Photo credit: Yorick Lambreghts