Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Just because we're uber-smart doesn't mean we're foolproof. Sadly, even scientists make mistakes. The most recent case of unfortunate events comes to us from Mallorca, where the captive breeding of the Mallorcan Midwife Toad, on the verge of extinction, has infected them with a fungus that might wipe them out.
According to the paper recently published in Current Biology, the Mallorcan Midwife Toad was on the brink of extinction until a captive breeding program sought to boost the amphibian's population. Then, just as the toad populations were growing, the captive-bred toads got infected with Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a violent fungus that has been devastating amphibians worldwide for at least ten years.
The Mallorcan Midwife toad was known only as a fossil thirty years ago, when one was found on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Their sudden discovery surged them to the forefront of conservation, and the subsequent monitoring and conservation was considered one of the few success stories in the field. That is, until 2004 when a toad was found dead with Chytrid fungus. A survey of toads following found that the disease was epidemic in one area and non-existent in others, suggesting that the introduction of the fungus was recent and hadn't had the chance to spread. Further investigation points the finger at a group of captive toads, many of whom later died, probably to the infection.
To be fair to the blamed scientists involved, the captive toads in question died in 1991, and the fungus at fault wasn't even described until 1998. Since then the fungus has gone on to be a leading cause of dramatic declines in amphibian populations around the world. Though no one knows why the fungus seems to have suddenly appeared and spread, it's effects are so bad that the OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health, has declared the fungus a notifiable disease.
This study serves as a sobering reminder that we must be careful with our environment, even if we're trying to help. Luckily for the Mallorcan Midwife Toads, Chytrid infection has yet to prove as deadly as it has to other species all over the world. Let's hope it stays that way.