In recent years, the populations of amphibians around the world have suffered a major decline, to the point that many of them disappear completely. Many researchers are running that the loss of these populations is due to several factors: climate change, habitat loss and the presence of a parasitic fungus. In this article will announce the parasite known as killer fungus.
This is the scientific name given to this fungus. It belongs to the class Chytridiomycetes, which gathers fungus parasites of plants and invertebrates. However, this is the only one of this kind affecting vertebrate organisms. It is related to the disappearance of more than 200 species of amphibians, including the golden toad of Costa Rica.
It has a life cycle that consists of two phases: a stationary (sporangium) and one mobile (via zoospores). In the image below we can see an outline of the structure of this type of fungi. The sporangium has some fine extensions known as rhizoids or mycelium rizoidal that allows to anchor itself in the inner skin layer. The zoospore emerges from the sporangium when it matures and presents a single apical flagellum.
Batrachocytrium dedrobatidis is a parasite and need a host that provide nutrients. In this case, the fungus feeds on keratin of skin of amphibians. Zoospores arrives to the skin of the host by water and encyst in the areas with greatest amount of keratin. They lose the flagel and become a sporangium. They develop the mycelium and again produce zoospores that emerge into the water. In the event that there are no hosts around, the parasite becomes a saprophyte (feeds on organic matter in decomposition) waiting for the arrival of new amphibians.
Why this process results in a disease for amphibians?
In amphibians, the skin is one of the most important organs. It develops functions such as hydration, osmoregulation, the thermoregulation and breathing (for example, the lissamphibians breathe only through the skin. Discover them in this article). Fungus feeds on keratin of skin, destroys the upper layers and spread over all body surface, preventing this organ to perform ion exchange. Individuals die from cardiac arrest.
The sporangia are attached to keratinized skin areas, which get their nutrients. Approximately between 4 and 6 days after infection, they begin to develop the zoospores (black areas in the interior of the sporangia of the image above).When these spores have matured, are released through a spout that is initially closed. Stopper (bottom image) dissolves shortly before the release of zoospores.
This disease affects only adult specimens. Even so, tadpoles are reservoirs of the disease, so they can become infected but do not develop symptoms. The fungus infects the tadpole keratinized areas (normally the areas of the mouth) and when the metamorphosis takes place, the fungus expands to other areas.
GEOGRAPHIC EXPANSION: ARRIVAL TO SPAIN
The fungus is characteristic of South African populations of Xenopus laevis (African Toad of nails, used in research), but spread all over the world through the traffic from infected individuals. The situation is so serious and the world Organization for Animal Health (OiE) has classified chytridiomycosis as a notifiable disease. In addition B. dendrobatidis is included in the list of 100 most invasive exotic species by the IUCN (if you want to know that they are invasive species, please read the following article).
Spain was the first European country to suffer an outbreak of chytridiomycosis, particularly in the Parque Natural de Peñalara in Madrid. The common midwife toad (Alytes obstetricans) was the most affected. Positive cases in other Spanish regions, as for example in the Balearic Islands have also been found. There are many investigations underway to solve this problem, like for example of Project Zero of the CSIC General Foundation.
THE CASE OF THE BALEARIC MIDWIFE TOAD
The Balearic midwife Toad (Alytes muletensis) is endemic to the Balearic Islands. It is classified as a vulnerable species by the IUCN (in this article we talk about this organization and its red list of species). It lives in ponds and ravines of difficult access in the Serra de Tramuntana (Mallorca). Specimens can reach around 4 cm and are nocturnal. Generally, this species was threatened by the destruction of their habitat or predation, but the latest threat facing it is chytridiomycosis.
Researchers found that certain populations experienced a significant decrease in the number of specimens, and they appeared dead without apparent reason. Studies revealed that these deaths were due to the presence of the parasitic fungus B.dendrobatidis. The population that presented more problems was the belonging to the area known as Torrent dels Ferrets (in 2004 it was confirmed the first case of chytridiomycosis).
Research to ending this fungus has been a success. At the end of 2015, researchers from the Balearic Islands confirmed the first successful treatment against chytridiomycosis. They carried out disinfection in the natural environment (to eliminate any presence of zoospore) and combined it with an anti-fungal treatment to tadpoles. They managed to completely eliminate the presence of the parasite, and thus save the population. Even so, efforts to put an end to this fungus should not cease.
Chytridiomycosis is still a serious problem for global amphibian populations, but there is still hope.
- World organisation for animal health (OiE)
- CSIC General Foundation: Lucha sin cuartel contra la quitridiomicosis (spanish), by Jaume Bosch.
- 100 of the most invasive alien species in the world, ISSG. PDF
- The Mallorcan midwife Toad, from discovery to conservation, Joan Mayol and Joan Oliver. (Spanish)
- Cover Photo: Vance Vredenburg.