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The painted mantella (Mantella baroni) is an iconic Malagasy frog species and one of more than 500 that could be in the path of a potentially deadly fungal disease. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Researchers share reactions to potentially devastating discovery of amphibian fungal disease in Madagascar

The amphibian fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), which has caused the precipitous decline of frog populations in Central America, Australia, the western United States, Europe and east Africa, has now been detected in Madagascar, according to a new paper out this week in the journal Scientific Reports. The paper documents the detection of Bd since 2010 in wild Malagasy amphibians and has spurred conservationists to action in a country that is home to about seven percent of the world’s amphibian species—most of which are found only in Madagascar.

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We reached out to a few of the paper’s authors to talk about what it felt like to make this discovery and whether they’re hopeful conservationists will be able to slow the spread of the fungal disease. The researchers include:

Franco Andreone, co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group-Madagascar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As ASG chair, Andreone is helping to coordinate mitigation actions and the national anti-chytrid strategy. He helped collect samples and planned and wrote the paper with additional co-authors.

Molly Bletz, PhD student at the Technische Universitat Braunschweig. Bletz sampled wild amphibian communities in Madagascar for this study, performed laboratory-based Bd detection analysis, and wrote the manuscript. “This study was an immense group effort that would not have happened without the devotion and collaboration of many,” Bletz says.

Angelica Crottini, researcher at the InBIO associate laboratory at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO/InBIO) at the University of Porto. Crottini is involved in numerous conservation activities in Madagascar and in 2010 co-organized and taught the workshop “Disease Screening in Amphibians” at Park Ivoloina (Tamatave, Madagascar). One of the results of the workshop was the launch of the National Monitoring Program for chytrid in Madagascar and the establishment of the Chytrid Emergency Cell. Crottini coordinated the chytrid screening analyses and contributed to fundraising to develop the project. Crottini worked with two other co-authors to conceive and design the study, analyze the data and write the paper.

Reid Harris, director of international disease mitigation for the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA). Harris’s lab was the first to provide data demonstrating that frog probiotics are a promising disease mitigation strategy. For this study, he worked with Bletz and the Chytrid Emergency Cell to conceptualize Bletz’s frog probiotic project in Madagascar. Harris also helped obtain funding and participated in the first field-sampling trip in August of 2013.

Franco Andreone and the painted mantella (mantella expectata). (Photo courtesy of Franco Andreone)

Franco Andreone and the painted mantella (Mantella expectata). (Photo courtesy of Franco Andreone)

How did you develop your love of Malagasy frogs?

Franco Andreone, co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group-Madagascar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

I began my activity of research and conservation on Malagasy frogs in the late ‘80s. I was always fascinated by the mix of African and Asian components in Madagascar, and by the richness of biodiversity present there.

Molly Bletz, PhD student at the Technische Universitat Braunschweig

As a kid I grew up with my hands dirty in the mud of lakes and streams. I would turn over every log and rock in sight to see what frog or salamander I might get a glimpse of, so my passion for amphibians seems to be rooted deeply in me. As I grew older, I began to learn about the frogs of the tropics, and with one photo of a brightly colored frog with its big bulging eyes, I was hooked for life.

Angelica Crottini, researcher at the InBIO associate laboratory at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO/InBIO) at the University of Porto

Well, it was my love for Madagascar that grew at first. My favorite book when I was a child had a special session on Madagascar and pictured its incredible and unique fauna (others included: lemurs, chameleons and giant jumping rats) and focused on the threats that this unique biota was facing after the arrival of humans about 2,000 years ago. While growing up, I developed a strong interest in amphibians and reptiles and the combination of these two passions (Madagascar on one side and amphibians and reptiles on the other side) pushed me to follow my dreams of devoting my life to the study and conservation of these incredible and fascinating animals.

Reid Harris, director of international disease mitigation for the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA)

My first trip to Madagascar to see the frogs was in 2013. Before that I developed my love for them by reading about them and seeing photographs. Ninety-nine percent of the species in Madagascar are found only in Madagascar and many of them are brightly colored. I was amazed by the parallel evolutionary patterns of the mantellas of Madagascar and the poison dart frogs in Central and South America. When I saw my first Mantella baroni in the field in 2014, it was like a religious experience.

Field sampling in Ankaratra. From left to right: Reid Harris, Che Weldon, Molly Bletz, Vatosoa Rabemananjara. (Photo courtesy of Reid Harris

Field sampling in Ankaratra. From left to right: Reid Harris, Che Weldon, Molly Bletz, Vatosoa Rabemananjara. (Photo courtesy of Reid Harris

What did you feel when you discovered Bd in Madagascar?

Franco Andreone, co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group-Madagascar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

I was really desperate and upset because the presence of the chytrid fungus was something really worrying. And knowing the huge extension of Madagascar and its problems in terms of habitat and species conservation, this was one more trouble against the wonderful amphibians of that land.

Molly Bletz, PhD student at the Technische Universitat Braunschweig

I was in shock. When I opened the data file for the samples I had tested for Bd that morning, I didn’t believe it. I sat down with my heart racing thinking: this cannot be! I was devastated to know that a potential lethal pathogen was threatening all those amazing frogs I had seen in person for the first time just a few months before.

Angelica Crottini, researcher at the InBIO associate laboratory at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO/InBIO) at the University of Porto

I was sure that the discovery of Bd in Madagascar was just a matter of time. This was one of the main reasons why I worked hard with several colleagues in the last five years to have in place a National Monitoring Program for early detection of chytrid in Madagascar, aimed at promptly reacting to this emergency. But, of course, this finding worries me, and the fact that we have the help and support of the conservation community does not necessarily mean that we will be able to prevent Malagasy amphibians from extinction if the Bd that we have recently identified turns out to be very aggressive. However, I believe it is important to hope that we detected it in time and that we will be able to make the difference.

Reid Harris, director of international disease mitigation for the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA).

I was not surprised given that Bd is found in mainland Africa and most everywhere else around the world.  But I was disappointed because if the strain is virulent, we will need to accelerate disease mitigation measures.

Franco Andreone and Angelica Crottini in the field. (Photo couresty of Franco Andreone)

Franco Andreone and Angelica Crottini in the field. (Photo couresty of Franco Andreone)

What do you think is the most important action conservationists can take right now?

Franco Andreone, co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group-Madagascar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

The best solution, I think, is to coordinate a response action, and convince the environmental agencies present in Madagascar to collaborate on such conservation action. Protecting Malagasy amphibians is not just a matter for zoologists, but it concerns the quality of human life: where amphibians are still present, the environment is much better.

Molly Bletz, PhD student at the Technische Universitat Braunschweig

I think there are many critical actions that need to be taken. In my eyes, one of the most important is increasing the capacity, both in Madagascar and abroad, to develop, test and implement mitigation strategies to fight Bd, such as skin probiotics, antifungal treatments, or aquatic microfuana manipulations.

Angelica Crottini, researcher at the InBIO associate laboratory at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO/InBIO) at the University of Porto

In these years, we succeeded in creating a dynamic group of experts working together against chytrid in Madagascar. Although it was hard to convince the conservation community to invest in a pre-emptive plan, we succeeded in obtaining the help of many supporting organizations and national authorities. Now Madagascar has a Chytrid Emergency Cell (CEC) working closely with the community of the Amphibian Specialist Group-Madagascar (ASG) and coordinating all conservation and mitigation actions against chytrid at the national level. Supporting the coordinated actions of the ASG and CEC against chytrid seems to me the best strategy to fight this new challenge for amphibian conservation in Madagascar.

Reid Harris, director of international disease mitigation for the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA)

Continued research into probiotics and other measures that can prevent Bd infections on frogs is very important. Developing a larger capacity for survival assurance colonies (breeding centers) is vital. It is also important to try to prevent spread of Bd around Madagascar, so researchers need to treat their boots and equipment with a bleach solution to kill Bd. Tourists travel among National Parks, so providing convenient foot baths at Park entrances to kill Bd is very important.

ld sampling at night in Ankaratra.  Faly Rabemananjara at far left; Reid Harris and Molly Bletz at far right (sitting).

ld sampling at night in Ankaratra. Faly Rabemananjara at far left; Reid Harris and Molly Bletz at far right (sitting).

Are you hopeful that conservationists will be able to stop the spread? Why

Franco Andreone, co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group-Madagascar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

I don’t know if this will be possible in the short term, but for sure we can play an important role in reducing the impact of this pathogen.

Molly Bletz, PhD student at the Technische Universitat Braunschweig

Losing even a portion of frogs of Madagascar would be devastating, and I believe all conservationists feel the same way. Therefore, I am hopeful that there will be a united front working to prevent the loss of these frogs from happening. Stopping Bd’s spread will be difficult, but we can develop integrative and proactive approaches to protect the frogs of Madagascar from its lethal effects.

Angelica Crottini, researcher at the InBIO associate laboratory at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO/InBIO) at the University of Porto

Giving up and losing hope is the worst thing we can do in this situation. In general, it is important to have goals, but without hope we naturally do not have the strength to pursue them. Hope is the fuel of our actions and losing it is a luxury that we cannot afford in this moment! My hope is that in 20 years I will still be able to go with my now three-year-old daughter to the beautiful forests of Madagascar to show her the astonishing amphibian diversity hosted therein.

Reid Harris, director of international disease mitigation for the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA)

In other countries, it has not been possible to prevent the spread of Bd once it arrives. However, if we can slow it down, we can buy some time to optimize disease mitigation solutions.

FOR MORE INFORMATION AND TO SUPPORT EFFORTS TO SLOW THE SPREAD OF CHYTRID IN MADAGASCAR, VISIT AMPHIBIANS.ORG.

About the Author


lrenickmayer

Lindsay is the conservation communications consultant for Global Wildlife Conservation and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.

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