The National Science Foundation, or NSF, awarded a $12.5 million grant to support a research partnership focused on amphibian resilience to infectious diseases.
The researchers are a part of the Resilience Institute Bridging Biological Training and Research, or RIBBiTR, a center based at the University of Pittsburgh. Incorporating biologists from different universities, the center is investigating the natural and human practices that have allowed some amphibian species to recover after catastrophic disease outbreaks, according to a University of Pittsburgh press release. Its hope is to apply these lessons to other living systems facing similar stresses.
“We are in a biodiversity crisis around the world that a lot of scientists consider to be one of the biggest mass extinctions our planet has ever seen,” said Erica Rosenblum, UC Berkeley associate professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management and lead researcher. “This project takes amphibians as a case study for trying to understand why these biodiversity declines are happening and what we can do about it.”
Chytridiomycosis, the disease responsible for decimating frog populations, has evolved relatively recently, according to Rosenblum. Although different species are more or less resistant to the pathogen, chytridiomycosis is unique in that it is impacting hundreds of different amphibian species.
In addition to looking at the damage caused by chytridiomycosis, the researchers are also looking at the ability of some species to resist and fight off the fungus, Rosenblum noted.
“For a long time, we thought that those populations were just tanking and were not going to recover,” Rosenblum said. “Some frogs seem to be evolving to adapt to this new threat. They may not be undergoing actual genetic evolution changes, but there’s still some kind of ecological shift, letting them coexist with the pathogen.”
The research project brings together scholars working on different research topics. Including a strong emphasis on outreach and education, this collaborative approach is intended to force scientists to move beyond their narrow areas of specialization and to think more systematically, Rosenblum said.
Rosenblum noted that although the current prospects for amphibians and other species are grim, there is still reason to have hope.
“My feeling with the amphibians is very similar to the situation of climate change,” Rosenblum said. “The future for amphibians is pretty grim unless we change how we relate to the other species on this planet. But we know — we know absolutely, positively, without a doubt — that if we remove the threats that we’re placing on amphibians and other species of wildlife, ecosystems start to recover.”