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How do Túngara frogs survive a killer fungus?

August 04, 2014

How do Túngara frogs survive a killer fungus?

Ryan and his team readied themselves by swabbing túngara skin for four field seasons before chytrid struck in 2012. So far, the impact seems minimal

When Mike Ryan started working with túngara frogs on Barro Colorado Island in 1978, his concern was the evolution of sexual selection and communication. Decades later, his concern became the survival of the iconic species as an amphibiankilling fungus crept toward his research sites around the Panama Canal.

Ryan and his team readied themselves by swabbing túngara skin for four field seasons before chytrid struck in 2012. So far, the impact seems minimal. “As far as we can tell, chytrid is not wiping out túngara frogs,” said Ryan, who has helped make Engystomops pustulosus the most-studied frog in Panama.

While the fungus doesn’t usually kill túngara frogs, infection rates are high. This raises new questions for Ryan and his lab at University of Texas at Austin. Does chytrid hinder the growth and reproductive success of túngara frogs? Does their survival hold any clues for scientists who are searching for a chytrid cure?

Lowland-dwelling túngaras may survive because chytrid is more lethal at higher, cooler elevations. Studies have shown some chytrid-resistant amphibians in the United States and other parts of the world share a particular immune system gene. Túngaras may possess a similar allele.

“If all of them have this same allele that gives them some resistance to chytrid, then one would be able to make guesses as to how it might be contributing to enhanced survivorship,” said Ryan during one of his annual túngara-sampling trips with Emma, his intrepid field assistant and teenage daughter. “We’re interested in chytrid mostly from the conservation, epidemiological aspect. But even that project ties into that bigger question of sexual communication.”

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