Deformed frogs form when parasites and pesticides combine

Deformities in Pennsylvania wood frogs are linked to the combination of their infection by parasites and a weakening of their immune system caused by exposure to pesticides, according to a study by Penn State researchers to be published in the 9 July issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research includes the first experimental studies of amphibian deformities conducted in ponds where the animals live. The discoveries, which show the effect of environmental stress on disease outbreaks, may help to explain how disease affects the distribution, growth, development, and survival of frogs, which have been disappearing during recent years at alarming rates worldwide.

"It is not uncommon now for 20 to 30 percent of the frogs at many locations to have limb deformities," says Joseph Kiesecker, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State and the leader of the research team. Since the early 1990s, when school children and amateur naturalists first began finding frogs with deformed legs in U. S. wetlands, scientists have been trying to determine the reason for the problem's escalating occurrence. These deformities in frogs have a chilling resemblance to the deformities in human caused decades ago by the drug Thalidomide. "Both the general public and scientists suspect that whatever is causing these problems in frogs may also cause harm to humans," Kiesecker says.

A decade of scientific research has resulted in two prominent hypotheses about the causes of frog deformities: one is that they are caused by human-induced contamination of the frogs' environment with chemicals like pesticides, and the other is that they are caused by a common naturally-occurring parasite, the trematode worm. Scientists had found evidence to support each hypothesis, but the research results were not conclusive enough to resolve the controversy. "More rigorously designed experiments were required to determine which factor is more impor

Contact: Barbara K. Kennedy
Penn State

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