November 3, 2010

Cornell Research Team Studies Climate Change Impacts by Observing Tropical Frog

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The key to determining the impacts of climate change is to look at its effects at the species level as opposed to waiting for glaciers to disappear, Cornell research suggests.

Prof. Kelly Zamudio, ecology and evolutionary biology, and her team have been researching the effects of climate change on a tropical frog species in Puerto Rico for the past five years.

“It’s almost like we’ve been missing the mark in aiming so high … we miss the opportunity to go down to the level of the species we’re interested in and ask questions,” Zamudio said. “It’s the same kind of question, it’s just an issue of focus. Think about the polar bear.”

A popular concern surrounding climate change is the polar bear becoming extinct as a result of habitat loss. According to Zamudio, this change is happening everywhere for every species in world, but we do not see it because it is not as obvious as the ice caps melting.

“By now, all species are being effected [by climate change],” Ana Longo grad, lead graduate student on the team, said. “Some can handle it better than others. The tropical species are not well adapted if the climate surpasses their threshold [for survival].”

In the case of these frogs in particular, there is another player. The fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, is further weakening an already stressed population.

Normally, the population endures the drier winter months when stress makes them vulnerable to the fungus but rebounds when the wet season returns. Through her research, Longo found the dry periods are becoming longer, increasing from three days to now almost ten.

Longo said she will travel to Puerto Rico in January to collect samples and further data as part of an ongoing study the team will continue for the next two or three years. Specifically for this trip, she will be looking at the frogs’ ability to induce “behavioral fever,” a mechanism used to combat the fungal disease that may be compromised by climate changes.

Bd is a very general fungus, so when it hits an area it impacts many species of frog. This fungus has the potential to wipe out the frog population of an ecosystem. Losing an entire “layer of biodiversity” can cause collapses further up the food chain, Zamudio said. Because frogs are so numerous, the impact would be great, she added.

“I don’t want to tell you I can predict what will happen when they’re all gone,” Zamudio said, “but it won’t be a positive change.”

According to Zamudio, in the scientific community those interested in biodiversity research are very concerned about this issue, and Cornell has claimed a place among that community. She felt it important to note this is not “everybody’s science for their own sake. It’s what can we do as a community to make this work. Collaboration for results.”

Original Author: Christa Nianiatus