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Chiricahua Leopard Frog: Messing with Nature

All this week we're considering the Endangered Species Act in New Mexico.  Today, KUNM’s Sidsel Overgaard brings you: The Case of the Disappearing Frogs...

The plight of the Chiricahua Leopard frog begins long ago, in a medical lab when researchers devise a way to use frogs as pregnancy tests.  The African Clawed frogs used for this purpose were soon shipped all around the world, carrying with them a deadly fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd for short (at least, that's the current favorite theory). 

Bd was soon turning up in frog habitats everywhere, resulting in catastrophic die-offs, and sometimes leading to the extinction of entire species.  The threatened Chiricahua Leopard frog, once found throughout New Mexico and Arizona, is one of the frogs in danger.  And Western New Nexico University Professor Randy Jennings is trying to help stop it.

Today, Jennings is taking me to a private ranch, owned by some conservation-minded folks south of Silver City where he’s been working to establish a population of the frogs.  He’s not sure what we’ll find, but it doesn’t take long before we discover three egg masses, several adult frogs and one lovely, bulbous tadpole.

Unfortunately, the tadpole already shows signs of having contracted Bd.  You may think this would put a damper on our party, but these frogs are special.

"I call 'em super frogs, but you know, that's totally me," says Jennings.

"Super" because due to a genetic trait that scientists have deemed the "Q" allele, these Chiricahua Leopard frogs, unlike most others, are somehow managing to survive.  There is still much research to be done as scientists don't yet know whether it's the allele causing the resistance, or whether it's a sign of something else.  But for Jennings, it's one point of light in an otherwise gloomy pattern of watching the frogs disappear from the landscape (he estimates there are only about 20 populations left, one of them on Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch).

The irony here is that, even while Jennings is working diligently to save these little guys, he's the reason Bd is in this particular habitat in the first place.  Jennings has been studying frogs in the Gila for decades, and he assumes that before Bd was discovered as the killer it is, he was probably one of its main forms of transportation around New Mexico.

It's a common story in our globalized world.  And while Bd is currently the most serious threat to Chiricahua Leopard frogs, it's not the only invasive species making their lives a challenge.  Should these frogs somehow manage to overcome the fungus, they'll still have bullfrogs, catfish and crayfish to contend with, both as predators and as competition for scarce resources.  "In a lot of those contests, the Leopard Frogs are going to lose," says Jennings.  "But it would be nice to have a situation where there was the opportunity to win.  And with Bd, Chiricahua Leopard frogs just don't often win."

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