Widespread amphibian deformities caused by parasite

CORVALLIS, Ore. The alarming increase of physical deformities such as extra legs in frogs, toads and other amphibians in the western United States is most likely caused by infection with a certain type of parasite, researchers said in a major study released this week.

The existence and number of those parasites is dependent upon the presence of a group of snails that play an essential role in the life cycle of the parasite, the study said. And burgeoning populations of those snails, in turn, may be due to alterations of habitat, loss of natural wetlands, and high nutrient levels caused by fertilizers or ranch animal grazing.

The study was published in Ecological Monographs, a professional journal of the Ecological Society of America, by researchers from Oregon State University and several other universities and agencies. It was based on an analysis of thousands of amphibians from 11 species over a five-state region of the American West.

The research also pointed away from the use of pesticides as a causative factor in this problem, finding little association between pesticide presence or levels and the number of amphibian deformities.

"This study shows a clear and strong link between amphibian deformities and the presence of parasites, and the snails that form part of the life cycle of those parasites," said Andrews Blaustein, a professor of zoology at OSU and one of the world's leading experts in the study of amphibian ecology and decline. "And we believe the increasing number of parasites and snails can ultimately be traced to human-caused alterations in habitat.

"For example, runoff of nitrogen-based fertilizers into aquatic systems may cause increases in the algal population that the snails feed on," Blaustein said. "The snails carry the parasites. More snails means more parasites infecting frogs and causing deformities."

In every animal population, the researchers said, there are a small percentage of individuals with physic

Contact: Andrew Blaustein
Oregon State University

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