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May 23, 2014

Denver Zoo Team Discovers Potentially Life-Threatening Fungus on Lake Titicaca Frogs

Denver Zoo Team Discovers Potentially Life-Threatening Fungus on Lake Titicaca Frogs

By Amy Levine, Denver Zoo Director of Conservation Biology

By now you should know that Denver Zoo leads an effort to save Peru and Bolivia’s critically endangered Lake Titicaca frog, Telmatobius culeus.  In addition to being threatened by poaching (these frogs are sold to vendors in Peru’s larger cities where the frogs are blended with other ingredients to make “frog smoothies” consumed for a variety of supposed health benefits), they are also at risk due to habitat loss, pollution, non-native fish predators and disease. 

One disease that has been known to pose a serious threat to frogs and other amphibians is a fungal infection called chytrid.  In March 2014, we reported that Denver Zoo staff member, Dr. Roberto Elias, works with other Peruvian biologists to monitor T. culeus populations and determine whether chytrid is present.  Indeed, one of our collaborators – biologist and Denver Zoo sponsored veterinary student, Raul Berenguel – found evidence of the chytrid fungus on a Lake Titicaca frog just this spring.  The good news is that now we know chytrid is present in the lake; the bad news is that this fungal infection can have major impacts on amphibian populations.

Chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) has been linked to severe amphibian population declines and even species extinctions.  The fungus can cause thickening of the skin, interfering with an amphibian’s ability to absorb water and electrolytes.  For a fully aquatic frog like the Lake Titicaca frog (which does not swim to the surface to breath but rather absorbs oxygen through its skin), this chytrid-induced skin thickening could result in suffocation.  But, not all species that carry chytrid develop the skin changes – some are resistant.  No one knows why some species are resistant, but it will be important for Denver Zoo staff and collaborators to continue to test for the presence of the disease to find out how many frogs appear to have the fungus and to determine whether T. culeus is resistant.

You can help Denver Zoo conserve the Lake Titicaca frog! Ask about our Peruvian handicrafts in Denver Zoo’s Kibongi Market gift shop.  Your purchase supports local women who earn a living by selling Lake Titicaca frog-themed handicrafts.  Together, we can ensure a future for this critically endangered species.



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