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Carcasses of Southern yellow-legged frogs in the Sierra’s Sixty Lake Basin. The frogs died of chytridiomycosis, an amphibian disease caused by a particularly virulent fungus. (Vance Vredenburg photo)

Startling amphibian decline a sign of larger biodiversity crisis
The sixth in a series of global extinction events is decimating populations that survived the dinosaurs

| 21 August 2008

Devastating declines of amphibian species around the world are a sign of a more far-reaching biodiversity disaster, according to Berkeley researchers who argue that substantial die-offs of amphibians and other plant and animal species add up to a new mass extinction facing the planet.

“There’s no question that we are in a mass-extinction spasm right now,” says David Wake, professor of integrative biology. “Amphibians have been around for about 250 million years. They made it through when the dinosaurs didn’t. The fact that they’re cutting out now should be a lesson for us.”

The study, published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was co-authored by Wake and Vance Vredenburg, research associate at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and an assistant professor of biology at San Francisco State University.

New species arise and old species die off all the time, but sometimes the extinction numbers far outweigh the emergence of new species. Extreme cases of this are called mass-extinction events, and there have been only five in our planet’s history, until now.

The sixth such event is different from its predecessors, says Wake. “My feeling is that behind all this lies the heavy hand of Homo sapiens,” he says.

There is no scientific consensus about when the current mass extinction started, Wake says. It may have been 10,000 years ago, when humans first came from Asia to the Americas and hunted many of the endemic large mammals to extinction. It may have started after the Industrial Revolution, when the human population exploded. Or we might be seeing the start of it right now, Wake says.

But no matter what the start date, empirical data clearly show that extinction rates have dramatically increased over the last few decades, Wake says.

In our own backyard

The global amphibian extinction is a particularly bleak example of this drastic decline. In 2004, researchers found that nearly one-third of amphibian species are threatened, and many of the non-threatened species are on the wane.

Our own backyard provides a striking example, Wake says. He and his colleagues study amphibians in the Sierra Nevada, and the picture is grim there as well: “We have these great national parks here that are about as close as you can get to absolute preserves, and there have been really startling drops in amphibian populations there, too.”

Of the seven amphibian species that inhabit the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, five are threatened. Wake and his colleagues observed that for two of these species, the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and the Southern yellow-legged frog, populations over the last few years declined by 95 to 98 percent, even in highly protected areas such as Yosemite National Park. This means that each local frog population has dwindled to 2 to 5 percent of its former size. Originally, frogs living atop the highest, most remote peaks seemed to thrive, but recently they also succumbed.

There are several frog-killers in the Sierra Nevada, Wake says. When the first hint of frog decline in this area came in the 1990s, researchers thought that rainbow trout introduced to this area were the culprits — they like to snack on tadpoles and frog eggs. The Berkeley team did experiments in which it physically removed trout from some areas, and the result was that frog populations started to recover. “But then they disappeared again, and this time there were carcasses,” Wake says.

The culprit is a nasty pathogenic fungus that causes the disease chytridiomycosis. Researchers discovered the fungus in Sierra Nevada frogs in 2001. Over the past five years scientists have documented mass die-offs and population collapses in the Sierra that are due to the fungus, which infects keratin, a hard protein that forms the outer layer of frogs’ skin. But they still don’t understand how the fungus actually kills the frogs.

The fungus, whatever its mode of operation, is not unique to California. It has been wiping out amphibians around the world, including in the tropics, where amphibian biodiversity is particularly high. “It’s been called the most devastating wildlife disease ever recorded,” Wake says.

Global warming and habitat constriction are two other major killers of frogs around the world. And the Sierra Nevada amphibians are also susceptible to poisonous winds carrying pesticides from Central Valley croplands. “The frogs have really been hit by a one-two punch,” Wake says, “although it’s more like a one-two-three-four punch.”

The frogs are not the only victims in this mass extinction, Wake emphasizes. Scientists studying other organisms have seen similarly dramatic effects.

“Our work needs to be seen in the context of all this other work, and the news is very, very grim,” Wake says.