The Australian scientist who solved the global mystery of the disappearing frogs

PM Prizes for Science
  • Dr Lee Berger has just Life Scientist of the Year in the 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes.
  • She won for solving the global mystery of the disappearing frogs.
  • She says the fungus causing the death of the frogs is among the worst infectious diseases in history.

The mystery: Starting in the 1970s frogs disappeared in pristine high altitude rainforests in Queensland and in Central America.

Whole species vanished and there was worldwide concern. Was it pollution or space radiation from the hole in the ozone layer?

Were frogs the canary in the coal mine and would humans be next to go extinct?

Dr Lee Berger, a Queensland based researcher who has spent decades studying the skin of frogs, has just named Life Scientist of the Year in the 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes for solving the global mystery of the disappearing frogs.

It was a fungus and not a virus as first thought.

Berger and her mentors at first thought that an introduced infection such as a virus could explain the pattern of declines.

The common belief then was that infectious diseases don’t cause extinctions. Now we know they do.

She didn’t find a virus, but in 1997 she did find a fungus growing on the skin of sick frogs. This chytrid fungus is now known to be the cause of a global mass extinction of frogs. At least six species have disappeared in Australia.

It took more than a decade of research and debate to persuade the sceptics.

She gathered more evidence with a team co-led by her husband Lee Skerratt, also a reserach scientist, and Dr Rick Speare, a Townsville medical doctor and vet.

They showed why frogs die from this skin infection and that the fungus thrives in colder habitats such as those found at high altitudes. Other researchers then confirmed the fungus was present in sick frogs around the world.

“This fungus is among the worst infectious diseases in history,” Berger says.

“It has caused over 200 species of frogs to either decline or become extinct.

“After decides of looking at the skin of frogs it’s wonderful to get this work in the spotlight and top give this issue the attention that it needs.”

She explains:

Her original paper has been cited more than 1800 times and has sparked hundreds of papers and research careers devoted to the problem.

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