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'Unprecedented': Flesh Eating Disease Wiping Out Entire Species

In the last 50 years, a single disease has completely wiped out 90 species and caused the decline of 500 more, in what's now considered the greatest loss of biodiversity due to a disease.

Chytridiomycosis -- a fungal disease which eats away at the skin of amphibians, is present in more than 60 countries, and Australia is one of the worst affected areas.

More than 50 species of Australian frogs have declined because of the disease in the last three decades, seven of which have become completely extinct.

That's according to a new international study into the deadly disease, led by researchers at the Australian National University, which found Central and South America -- the global hotspots for the most number of amphibians, were also among the worst affected.

Helena's marsupial frog, Gastrotheca helenae. Image: Aldemar Acevedo Rincon

The disease is caused by chytrid fungus and experts believe it likely originated in Asia, where local amphibians have developed a resistance to it over a long period of time.

Lead researcher Dr. Ben Scheele from the Fenner School of Environment and Society said not only is chytridiomycosis responsible for the greatest loss of biodiversity due to a disease but it's one of the most damaging invasive species in the world.

Scheele said the number of the declines is "unprecedented" and believes the sheer number of species it endangers makes the fungus as damaging as rats and cats.

Image: Youtube (ANU)

"We've lost some really amazing species," he said.

While the disease was first identified in 1998, Scheele told 10 daily this is the first time its impact has been quantified.

He said severe declines of species because of the disease began from the mid-1980s and have continued to today at a global scale.

Unfortunately, it's likely the disease is here to stay, in part because some species aren't killed by the disease and act as a "reservoir" for the fungus, Scheele explained.

But many more species are still a "high risk" of becoming extinct over the next two decades because of the ongoing impact of chytridiomycosis.

"Knowing what species are at risk can help target future research to develop conservation actions to prevent extinctions," Scheele said.

Mossy Red-eyed Frogs are just one species now threatened with extinction. Credit: Jonathan E. Kolby, Honduras Amphibian Rescue & Conservation Center.

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According to researchers, the disease is now a "global pandemic" and it's predominantly being caused by globalisation and the wildlife trade.

Scheele told 10 daily the pathogen was spread from Asia by humans who moved it into Australia and North, South and Central America.

"Humans are moving plans and animals around the world at an increasingly rapid rate, introducing pathogens into new areas," he said.

The study has also called for an urgent improvement into biosecurity and wildlife trade regulation to prevent more extinctions.

Dr Benjamin Scheele and Dr Claire Foster led the four-year study which coordinated efforts of more than 40 authors. Image: The Australian National University

Scheele told 10 daily this was a national level imperative that needed to come from top-level government policy.

"That's to stop spreading of different strains of the fungus globally and as well as to prevent future diseases."

He said the decimation of wildlife and plans was "greatly increasing" and said in a constantly moving globalised world it's "unlikely" chytridiomycosis will be the last disease with this impact.

Southern Corroboree Frog. Image credit: Corey Doughty.

The four-year study was coordinated by 42 authors globally with a particular focus on the hotspots of Australia, and South and Central America.

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au