It’s official. The deadly amphibian chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) has now spread across the Panama Canal into Eastern Panama according to a study recently published in Ecohealth. Elsewhere in Central and South America, this disease has spread through mountainous regions. According to Karen Lips, a conservation biologist who has studied the problem for years, when Bd arrives at a site, about half of the species vanish and the remaining species experience massive die-offs.
Conservationists have been fretting for years about what might happen to Eastern Panama’s 120-odd amphibian species when Bd hits. Bd is a disease that cannot tolerate extremely hot temperatures, so it tends to be most devastating in cooler mountainous regions of the tropics that remain cool and moist year-round. The mountainous regions of Eastern Panama are one of the last remaining strongholds of naïve amphibian populations in the New World, and species that tend to have a highland distribution and small ranges are the most vulnerable to extinction.
To add another layer of complexity to this problem, there are many species new to science that we could lose before they are even discovered. According to Dr. Andrew Crawford who studies amphibian genetics, “Eastern Panama has been relatively poorly explored by herpetologists and it is likely that there are several species new to science that live only in this region. What is particularly worrying is that we are facing a huge biodiversity threat, but we don’t have a good idea of just how many species are at stake”.