Frogs face fatal fungal foes

Pathogens are organisms that cause disease, and like all organisms, they obey evolutionary principles. Pathogens that survive and reproduce successfully in a particular environment will have more offspring than those that are less successful, thereby passing on those traits that promote successful reproduction to future generations. The problem is that many pathogens change their environment in a way that makes their environment less hospitable for their own survival or reproduction. For example, the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) causes chytridiomycosis in its amphibian host, which may severely reduce the host population size to the point where few individuals survive. If the host population goes extinct, then there are no hosts for the fungal offspring to infect.

Scheele fungal spore

Scanning electron micrograph of Batrachochytrium denbdrobatidis spore. Credit: Dr. Alex Hyatt, CSIRO Livestock Industries’ Australian Animal Health Laboratory.

Fortunately for Bd, but unfortunately for amphibians, there are several ways out of this conundrum. One approach is a reduction in pathogenicity so that a pathogen’s host species is able to tolerate the infection (and of course, natural selection will at the same time favor an increase in the host species’ tolerance for the pathogen). A second approach is to broadcast a wide net by infecting many different species. That way if one host species goes extinct, there are always many other species to infect. Bd infects over 500 species of amphibians, and has been implicated in the extinction of over 100 amphibian species, and the severe decline of an additional 100 species.

Ben Scheele and his colleagues wanted to know why the endangered northern corroboree frog, Pseudophryne pengilleyi, was declining in southeastern Australia. Several previous studies showed that many corroboree frog populations declined or went extinct in that region over the past 20 years, while the abundant common eastern froglet, Crinia signifera, showed no signs of decline over the same time period. Pilot studies showed that eastern froglets were heavily and commonly infected with Bd. The researchers reasoned that eastern froglets could be acting as a reservoir for Bd, so that corroboree frog populations are being decimated by association with Bd-infected eastern froglets.

Female Ppen copy Hunter

Female Pseudophryne pengilleyi. Credit: David Hunter.

Preliminary surveys indicated that the decline of corroboree frogs was not uniform across the study site; in fact there were some newly discovered populations that were doing very well. The researchers defined three types of sites in their research area. Absent sites (40 in total) had corroboree frogs in 1998, but the population went extinct by 2012. Declined sites (17 in total) had a greater than 80% decrease in abundance since 2000. New sites (25 in total) were newly discovered since 2012, and had much higher population densities than declined sites.


Study area in southeastern Australia, showing locations of Absent, Declined and New sites.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to visually distinguish an infected frog from an uninfected frog, at least until the few hours before death. But the researchers needed to be able to tell if a frog had chytridiomycosis. So they collected skin swabs from the frogs during the breeding season – only working at night to ensure cool humid conditions which minimized frog stress. They then did real time PCR on these samples to quantify the intensity of Bd infection.

Scheele and his colleagues had three important questions they were now prepared to answer. First, how prevalent is Bd in these two species? They found that infection rate was much higher in eastern froglets (79.4%) than in corroboree frogs (27.3%). The intensity of infection (measured by the number of fungal spores) was also much greater in eastern froglets than in corroboree frogs.

Second, do eastern froglets act as a reservoir for Bd, leading to infection and decline of corroboree frog populations? As we discussed earlier, the two species coexist at some sites, but not at others. If eastern froglets act as a reservoir for Bd, we would expect corroboree frogs to have higher infection rates at sites they share with eastern froglets, than they do at sites without eastern froglets. In support of this prediction, Bd prevalence in corroboree frogs was 41.4% at sites with eastern froglets, but only 2.6% at sites with no eastern froglets.

crinia and pengilleyi 3

C. signifera (left) and P. pengilleyi spending quality time together in a P. pengilleyi nest. Credit: David Hunter.

Finally, the researchers want to identify conditions that will promote corroboree frog recovery. They approached this quantitatively by modeling the probability of a site being classified as Absent, Declined or New, in relation to eastern froglet abundance. Based on their survey data of 81 sites, those sites with the highest eastern froglet abundance are most likely to be classified as Absent (corroboree frog extinction), while sites with very few eastern froglets are most likely to be classified as New (thriving corroboree frog populations).


Probability of a site being classified as Absent, Declined or New, based on eastern froglet abundance. Data are log transformed. Dashed lines are 95% confidence intervals.

Scheele and his colleagues conclude that eastern froglets are a reservoir host for Bd, and have played a major role in the decline in corroboree frog populations. The researchers point out that, in general, areas lacking reservoir hosts may provide endangered species with refugia from infectious disease. For managing endangered species, conservation biologists should carefully monitor sites for the presence of reservoir hosts so they don’t reintroduce rare and endangered animals into locations where they will be attacked and killed by pathogens.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Scheele, Ben C., David A. Hunter, Laura A. Brannelly, Lee F. Skerratt, and Don A. Driscoll. “Reservoir‐host amplification of disease impact in an endangered amphibian.” Conservation Biology 31, no. 3 (2017): 592-600. Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.

Metallic starlings: a rain of terror

I am a slow learner. Several times in the past few years I have paddled my canoe under a particular sycamore tree in the New River in Radford, Virginia. Each time I do so, I am greeted by large numbers of cormorant poop bombs dropped by the dozens of cormorants that seem to find that particular tree to their liking, and this particular canoeist not to their liking. Fortunately, cormorants have bad aim, but unfortunately it is not that bad.

Daniel Natusch and three other researchers wanted to know how an analogous form of nutrient enrichment from large colonies of nesting Metallic Starlings (Aplonis metallica) affects the nearby ecosystem in a tropical Australian rainforest. They were interested in this question because it was obvious that the ground below the nesting colony trees was basically devoid of vegetation; they describe it as “an open moonscape”, contrasting sharply with the thick rainforest nearby. Other studies have shown that nutrient enrichment from bird guano leads to increased vegetation density – so why is this ecosystem different?


Lockerbie Scrub rainforest, in Cape York Peninsula, Australia, showing colony tree with dead zone (left) and a continuous rainforest (right)



Dan Natusch conducts herpetological research with his son Huxley. Credit: Jessica Lyons













The researchers compared the biological, chemical and physical environment underneath 27 different colony trees to the environment underneath a randomly chosen tree 100-200 meters from the colony tree. As expected, they found very little vegetation near colony trees, in contrast to relatively dense vegetation near the randomly chosen trees.




Vegetation cover (left) and number of live stems (right) in relation to distance from the colony or randomly chosen tree (Point 0 on X-axis).  Negative numbers are downslope and positive numbers are upslope from the tree.


Soil analyses showed that the soils under the colony trees had much higher concentrations of important nutrients. For example, phosphorus levels were more than 30 times greater, and ammonium nitrogen was about four times greater under colony trees than under the randomly chosen trees. The researchers wondered whether these nutrient levels were so high that they were toxic to vegetation. That would account for the dead zone under the colony trees. An alternative hypothesis is that animals (pigs and turkeys in particular) may be attracted to these high nutrient areas under the colonies, and may either kill germinating plants by eating or trampling them.

Feral pigs (Sus scrofa) rooting and trampling under a colony tree. Credit Daniel Natusch

To test both hypotheses, at the beginning of the breeding season the researchers covered a portion of the colony tree region with metal cages (exclosures) that prevented turkeys and pigs from gaining access. They discovered a much greater number of seedlings under the exclosures in comparison to the areas where turkeys and pigs could access the seedlings.

natuschfig7They concluded that nutrient levels were not toxic to seedlings, but that pigs and turkeys were either eating or trampling the seedlings as they emerge. As you can see, the number of exclosure seedlings dropped sharply in July, in part because rainfall declines sharply in June, which leads to high plant mortality, particularly in the unshaded dead zone. But in addition, feral pigs broke into all of the exclosures that summer to access the seedlings and the nutrient-rich soil.

Do these dead zones actually benefit the starlings in any way? One possible advantage is that dead zones prevent snakes from climbing nearby trees and vines to gain access to the nests that are located high in the canopy of the colony tree. However there is good evidence that colony trees suffer high mortality, as 10 of the 27 colony trees died within three years of the study. Trees that fall during the nesting period could lead to the failure of all of the nests within that colony tree.



A scrub python (Morelia amethistina) puts the squeeze on a juvenile Metallic Starling. Credit Daniel Natusch.


Why do we find dead zones beneath colonies of Metallic Starlings, and increased plant growth rate, larger plant size and greater plant diversity beneath the colonies of several other bird colonies? Most previous studies have looked at sea-bird colonies on small islands that have few terrestrial herbivores, so germinating seedlings are relatively undisturbed. This study occurred in a continuous forest in tropical Australia, which harbored a large population of hungry herbivores. These contrasting findings show the important role of environmental context for understanding how ecological interactions will play out. Given that we humans are continually adding nutrients to our environment (through natural bodily function and when we fertilize our fields), we need to carefully consider the biotic and abiotic players in the ecosystem, so we can predict the effects we are having on the environment.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Natusch, D. J. D., Lyons, J. A., Brown, G. P., & Shine, R. (2017). Biotic interactions mediate the influence of bird colonies on vegetation and soil chemistry at aggregation sites. Ecology 98(2): 382-392. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.