Close your eyes and imagine the high-pitched shrieking of cicadas unified in a crescendo of noise from the treeline. Fireflies blinking their fluorescence through the undergrowth. Bats swooping silently overhead, rustling your hair with their wing beats. Trekking across steep hillsides of wasabi plants during a rainstorm. Not the average working week of a researcher in the School of Public Health, but just some of the sights and sounds I was fortunate to experience when I visited Taiwan in May as a National Geographic Young Explorer.
The aim of my 10-day visit was to collect and swab as many tadpoles, frogs and salamanders as possible. Why, you ask? Tragically, amphibians are being struck down by a fungal plague. In the past 20 years there have been global biodiversity losses, mass mortality events and the extinction of over 200 frog species attributed to chytridiomycosis—a disease caused by the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). To give you an idea of scale, some researchers are referring to this outbreak as the sixth mass extinction event: something on a par with the dinosaur die-off 66 million years ago in terms of species lost. More recently emerged is its sister pathogen Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), which is causing the deaths of European fire salamanders in the Netherlands. It’s estimated that populations have declined by nearly 20% per year since 2008, leading Bsal to be described by some as the ‘perfect pathogen’. (more…)