‘Alarming implications’: Disease linked to mass frog deaths found in UK

A disease which has caused mass mortality events in frogs has for the first time been found in a captive UK population, a new study shows, which describes the implications as “alarming”.

The infection has been found in European tree frogs which had been bought from a pet shop and subsequently kept in an aquarium in Surrey. 

Severe Perkinsea infection (SPI) is an emerging disease which affects amphibians, specifically tadpoles. 

It correlates with liver infections of the SPI-causing protist organism, referred to as the pathogenic perkinsea clade (PPC).  

Instances of mass dying out of tadpoles have been associated with PPC infections reported across North America, from Alaska to Florida. 

The discovery of PPC in captive UK tadpoles - all of which had also developed SPI - has therefore been met with concerns by scientists, as it suggests the deadly disease is spreading. 

Scientists who discovered the pathogen say it is not possible to track the origin of it, but that it could potentially have come from unidentified tank water or equipment contamination.

The study adds that infections can be unintentionally spread across a large geographical range when captive-bred amphibians are moved for trade, food and other commercial purposes -  a phenomenon known as ‘pathogen pollution’.

The report, published by the Royal Society’s Biology Letters adds: “Aquaculture disease outbreaks pose a threat to native species, as captive-bred/farmed animals (and their pathogens) often spread from aquaculture to natural environments [...]. This has alarming implications for conservation, as many amphibian species are currently suffering catastrophic population decline”. 

To do the research, scientists euthanised tadpoles and dissected liver tissue, to see if the parasite was present. 

After sequencing, the PPC found in the tadpoles was found to be “identical, or nearly identical”, to published PPC sequences seen in the mass mortality events seen in the USA. 

Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Tom Richards from University of Oxford, and one of the paper’s authors said: “If we wait for more experimental tests and don’t change policy [on screening for disease] then it’s too late. 

“I find this all very reminiscent of the covid situation – ‘Oh it’s coming, it’s coming, we’re not sure if it’s a real threat yet’ – then it’s too late,”

He continued: “Obviously, the world cares a lot less about frogs, but maybe it should care a bit more. Wider food webs depend on frogs, take out one element of the web and the whole thing collapses”. 

There is currently no evidence of SPI in wild amphibian populations in the UK or Europe, but the report says that there has been little testing. 

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