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Environment: Exposure to herbicides makes amphibians more susceptible to chytrid fungus

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Amphibians are in big trouble, and exposure to environmental pollution is a least partly to blame.

As of December 2012, there were 29 amphibian species classified as endangered or threatened and 5 species waiting to be listed. Overall frog and salamander numbers are declining and the cause, or causes, have not been determined ~ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

FRISCO — Early life exposure to the herbicide atrazine makes frogs much more susceptible to the chytrid fungus that has been implicated a global wave of amphibian die-offs.

Experiments by scientists at the university of South Florida showed that a six-day exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of the most common herbicides in the world increased frog mortality 46 days after the atrazine exposure, but only when frogs were challenged with the chytrid fungus. This increase in mortality was driven by a reduction in the frogs’ tolerance of the infection.

Other research results have also suggested that exposure to pesticides suppresses the immune response in a variety of species, making them more susceptible to fungal infections and parasitic organisms. More information on the impact of environmental contaminants to amphibians is available at this USFWS web page.

USF Biologist Jason Rohr said the new findings show that early-life exposure to atrazine increases frog mortality but only when the frogs were challenged with a chytrid fungus, a pathogen implicated in worldwide amphibian declines. The research is published in the new edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Understanding how stressors cause enduring health effects is important because these stressors might then be avoided or mitigated during formative developmental stages to prevent lasting increases in disease susceptibility,” said USF Biologist Jason Rohr.

Moreover, the researchers found no evidence of recovery from the atrazine exposure and the atrazine-induced increase in disease susceptibility was independent of when the atrazine exposure occurred during tadpole development.

“These findings are important because they suggest that amphibians might need to be exposed only to atrazine briefly as larvae for atrazine to cause persistent increases in their risk of chytri-induced mortality,” Rohr said. “Our findings suggest that reducing early-life exposure of amphibians to atrazine could reduce lasting increases in the risk of mortality from a disease associated with worldwide amphibian declines.”

Until this study, scientists knew little about how early-life exposure to stressors affected the risk of infectious diseases for amphibians later in life.

”Identifying which, when, and how stressors cause enduring effects on disease risk could facilitate disease prevention in wildlife and humans, an approach that is often more cost-effective and efficient than reactive medicine,” Rohr said.

The findings are also the latest chapter in research Rohr and his lab has conducted on the impact of atrazine on amphibians. These findings are consistent with earlier studies that concluded that, while the chemical typically does not directly kill amphibians and fish, there is consistent scientific evidence that it negatively impacts their biology by affecting their growth and immune and endocrine systems.

 The study was conducted by Rohr and Lynn Martin, Associate Professors of USF’s Department of Integrative Biology; USF researchers Taegan McMahon and Neal Halstead; and colleagues at the University of Florida, Oakland University, and Archbold Biological Station.

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