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A killer fungus has spread in Africa, driving more amphibians to extinction

This frog from the species Leptopelis mtoewaate, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, tested positive for the fungal infection chytridiomycosis. (Eli Greenbaum)
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A killer fungus that has caused the worst wildlife disease in history, wiping out or driving to the brink of extinction hundreds of amphibian species, has become more widespread across Africa than anyone realized and is probably causing overlooked outbreaks.

First described in the late 1990s, the fungal infection called chytridiomycosis has swept through the diversity-rich continent in little more than two decades, possibly fueled by air travel and the animal and food trades, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science. Ominous news from the study suggests that one lineage of the fungus assumed to be benign is more common and possibly more virulent than previously thought.

“There is no other pathogen that has caused a disease even close to this,” said study co-author Vance T. Vredenburg, associate chair of biology at San Francisco State University. He keeps a jar full of dead frogs to remind him of what it felt like to watch firsthand as the disease destroyed frog populations in the Sierra Nevada mountain range between 2004 and 2008.

While most pathogens sicken or kill a limited number of species, this fungus “is a generalist across all amphibians, and it does extremely well,” Vredenburg said. The fungus is considered a significant reason that 41 percent of amphibians around the world are in danger of extinction.

“We’re incredibly lucky it doesn’t affect mammals,” Vredenburg said.

In terms of scale, the closest any human disease has approached to chytridiomycosis is the Black Death, Vredenburg said, referring to the epidemic of bubonic plague in the mid-14th century that killed one-third of Europe’s population in five years.

The devastation to amphibian species is wreaking havoc on ecosystems around the world. Frogs and salamanders feed on disease-causing mosquitoes and other insects, keeping their populations in check. They also provide food for larger frogs, snakes and some bird species.

The new study’s findings are important because “Africa was one part of the world where we’ve always had a big question mark” about the fungus, said Jamie Voyles, an associate professor of biology at the University of Nevada at Reno who has written about chytridiomycosis but did not participate in this study.

The continent is home to more than 1,200 of the world’s 8,592 recognized species of amphibians, making it a key benchmark for measuring the impact of chytridiomycosis. Amphibians, a class of animals able to live both on land and in the water, consist of three groups: frogs, salamanders and the wormlike animals called caecilians.

Vredenburg said researchers did find cause for hope in the fact that “there are quite a few [amphibian] species that get infected and nothing happens.” What protects resistant animals, however, remains unclear.

Spores from the waterborne fungus known as Bd, short for the scientific name Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, seep into the skin of frogs and salamanders. Within 24 hours, the fungus can produce thousands more spores that are released back into the water, where they swim using a threadlike structure called a flagellum. The new spores can infect the same frog as well as others.

The fungus kills by causing an amphibian’s skin to grow up to 40 times its normal thickness, making it hard for the animals to breathe and causing them to become dehydrated. Eventually, many get conditions that cause their hearts to stop.

For their study, Vredenburg and his colleagues cast a broad net, searching for signs of the disease in Africa as far back as 1852. They examined 16,900 amphibian specimens, testing almost 3,000 from museums and 1,651 from wild animals in Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They also included amphibians recorded in previous journal studies. The earliest known example of the fungus worldwide dates back to 1933 and was found in Cameroon.

Vredenburg and his colleagues found that, starting just before the 1960s, the fungus was present in less than 5 percent of the samples they studied during every decade. Then its presence abruptly soared to 17.2 percent in 2000. The study reported that the fungus is spreading especially quickly in Cameroon and Kenya.

In Cameroon, they found that the fungus lineage known as Bd-CAPE was spreading and appears to be more virulent than previously thought.

“I like to see studies like this that combine a lot of different methods to tell a story,” said Andrea J. Adams, assistant researcher at the Earth Research Institute at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

But the work leaves open an important question: Why has the fungus spread so dramatically since 2000?

In her own study of the disease in Southern California during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Adams concluded that the fungus coincided with the region’s postwar land boom and the construction of new roads, which offered a path for the pathogen to reach frog populations in the mountains.

In Africa, Vredenburg and his colleagues found one country, Equatorial Guinea, where there has been a significant decrease in the prevalence of the fungus. They don’t know the reason.

In some cases, its spread can be traced to air travel or shipping, which have increased connections between different countries and between islands. In the Caribbean, frogs that slipped in with banana shipments appear to have carried the fungus from one island to another, Vredenburg said.

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“As we increase the connectivity,” he added, “we’re going to disrupt millions of years of evolution between pathogens and hosts.”

The huge declines in amphibian populations could wind up changing a fundamental human experience, Voyles said. “Everybody can remember catching frogs or tadpoles as a kid. The joy of discovery is incredible.”

Adams said the threat is important because “biodiversity is our knowledge. We need to keep everything around as long as possible.” Some amphibians may be used in medicine, while others may have benefits people have not anticipated.

For Vredenburg, the spread of the Bd fungus is a sobering reminder that he did not initially realize how great a threat it posed to the frogs he studied in the Sierra Nevada.

“These frog populations are so robust. Come on, they’ve been here for millions of years in the mountain,” he recalls thinking at the time. “Sure enough, the fungus came in and wiped them out. I saw tens of thousands of dead frogs.”