New Threat to Frogs and Hellbenders

Frogs and herons kept me up through the night. And then the owl started screaming and I realized camping by the creek in the summer maybe wasn’t such a great idea. It was a year ago, but I was reminded of it when our ombudsman, Ken Drenon, noted the past month’s wildlife complaints. One was noisy frogs.

We’re lucky to have such problems. Frogs and other amphibians worldwide face some huge challenges, especially in terms of habitat loss, diseases, invasive species and contaminants. Although prairie species have declined in Missouri, those that depend on woodlands, such as spring peepers, still have lots of good places to live here.

But a new threat in the form of a fungus that attacks amphibians’ skin, the chytrid (kit-rid) fungus, has appeared and is most likely spreading. The good news is that it’s killed in temperatures over 85 and under 29 degrees. The bad news is that we have cool, spring-fed waters in Ozark streams that could keep the fungus thriving. While it’s not a fungus that affects humans, it is a serious disease for amphibians.

Since our frogs spend the majority of their time on land, they’re less in contact with water where the fungus thrives, which may help them survive the disease. (Of course, many frogs breed in water in March, so their offspring could still be at risk.) But hellbenders, an increasingly rare amphibian in the Ozarks, have to live their whole lives in the cool Ozark streams. And nobody knows what was already causing hellbenders to decline from about 15,000 or so 30 years ago to maybe 1,100 today. So this disease could be a final blow to already weakened animals. Jeff Briggler, MDC herpetologist, has been leading a group trying to figure out the hellbender decline. The chytrid fungus is adding an urgency to their work.

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