26 July 2011

Terry Jones urges frog lovers to ‘bring out your dead... frogs’

Terry Jones, who has a soft spot for amphibians after playing Mr Toad in the 1996 Wind in the Willows film, is championing a frog-friendly research project. With a twist on the famous ‘Bring out your dead’ scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the public are being asked to support research by contributing amphibian bodies from suspected disease outbreaks for some frog forensics.

A mysterious killer is sweeping through the UK’s ponds. It comes silently in summer and leaves dead frogs in its wake, sometimes ravaging the local population. In the past 20 years, gardeners have phoned wildlife charity Froglife, devastated that the frogs in their ponds have been wiped out by disease. As well as mapping the outbreaks, Froglife has been working with top scientists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) since 1989 to investigate what has caused the loss of life. Through testing samples from the frogs, early research confirmed that a viral pathogen now known as Ranavirus is the cause of many tragedies.

“Worldwide, amphibians are declining to such an extent that around one third of all species are now threatened with extinction,” explains Stephen Price, who’s carrying out a PhD on ranavirus. “In Europe particularly, amphibians have been identified as more threatened than both birds and mammals. And though infectious disease has only been recognised recently as an important contributor to amphibian declines, the negative impact of ranavirus on common frog populations in England has already been documented.”

Stephen, and colleagues at ZSL, have been performing autopsies on the unfortunate amphibians, and have identified some intriguing gaps in information about the disease. Some locations have reported large losses of frogs that could match the disease, but no bodies from that area have been available to test. Other areas may have one or two reports, but it’s not clear what the disease status is now.

The public can help in this crucial research to map and demystify a pernicious threat to frogs. Froglife and ZSL are appealing to the public to send in reports of dead frogs this summer, particularly in the regions where information is missing. Although any reports are valuable, areas where more data is needed include the Isle of Wight, the Wirral peninsula and Merseyside, the coastal region north and south of Blackpool, Bristol and the coastal region around Cardiff on the Welsh side of the Severn estuary, the Midlands (east and west), Newcastle and the north more generally.

“It’s specifically reports of mass mortality that we need,” explains Liam Atherton of Froglife. “Individual frog deaths may be due to a variety of factors other than disease. Anyone with lots of dead frogs in or around their pond is asked to get in touch with us, quickly enough so that we can arrange for bodies to be sent on or collected, and use them to gather more data about the disease and how it works.”

Ranavirus is not just restricted to frogs - it has also been found to occur in common toads and newts. Most apparent during summer, especially on hot days between June and August, the main signs to watch out for are lethargic and/or emaciated frogs; it’s common to find a number of dead frogs in a short period of time. Other signs of disease can include redness of the skin, ulcers or sores, bleeding (especially from the mouth or anus) and breakdown of limbs though the frogs may also show no symptoms at all.

Anyone with a lot of dead frogs this summer could not only be helping crucial research, they could also be part of an unusual art project raising awareness about the threats facing frogs and other amphibians. Artist Gavin Thorogood is interested in coming out to sketch the grisly scenes at ponds affected by ranavirus.

To report a mass mortality, and find out how to submit a carcass for analysis, please contact Froglife’s Communications Officer, Lucy Benyon: lucy.benyon@froglife.org or 01733 558960.

Further information about amphibian diseases and the Frog Mortality Project can be found on the Froglife website.

If you want to support this and other amphibian and reptile conservation in the UK you can become a Froglife Friend for as little as £1.50 a month.

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