Chytridiomycosis, an often fatal disease caused by the chytrid fungus, which affects amphibians' pores, causing them to die of dehydration, is leveling the world's frog populations. Roughly 165 species of frogs are thought to have gone extinct in the past decade, and it is estimated that between 30 percent and 50 percent of the world's greater amphibian population is threatened with extinction, according to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Thought to have originated in South Africa, chytridiomycosis has spread worldwide. Scientists believe it is spread through waterways, but also that the disease first globalized on the back of the African clawed frog, which is not susceptible to the disorder.
The African clawed frog may be immune (as is the American bullfrog), but when the chytrid fungus arrives in a friendly habitat, the local frog population does not fare well: It is estimated that within one year of the fungus' arrival, 50 percent of amphibian species will be affected. Of those affected species, it is estimated that fully 80 percent of individuals will die.
"Realize the precedent that amphibians are setting here," Joe Mendelson, a herpetologist at the Atlanta Zoo, said during an interview last year on National Public Radio. "A disease that we did not know existed, and we don't from where it came, and we don't know how it gets around, is working its way across an entire vertebrate class, eliminating species at an incredibly accelerated pace — and we can't stop it."
Dark days indeed.
But there is hope. Along with a host of similarly concerned herpetologists, Mendelson has helped organize the Amphibian Ark project, which is asking the zoos and aquariums of the world to take in 500 individual frogs from one of the threatened species. It's a sort of heirloom project, where the species' gene pool would survive (in captivity, at least) while scientists try to discover an antidote to the disease.
They've got a long way to go. The Amphibian Ark (www.amphibianark.org) is launching a massive fundraising effort in 2008, which the group has also dubbed "The Year of the Frog."
All politics being local, I felt a little worse than usual recently when I eyed my Canned Gourmet Frogs Legs.
Like most any globetrotting canned animal product, these frog's legs emerged from their container less a plucky amphibian fresh from the Chytrid Wars, more a glistening puck. I will say, though, that I was impressed with how quickly the puck broke apart, revealing a veritable anatomy lesson of thighs and calves.
But what's that I see before me? Is it? Why, yes it is! It's frog spine! And are those frog veins I see? Why, yes! Yes, they are!
Not only that, but the can of frog's "legs" — many of which, it should be noted, had long since detached from bone, creating a nest of femurs bound by sinuous frog muscle — was heavily seasoned with dried red chiles and basil, and studded with what appeared to be plump raisins.
But it didn't smell half bad, and in truth as I tossed it in a frying pan (per the instructions) I even began to imagine I was in for an illicit treat.
But then the anatomy lesson warmed, and those plump raisins began to worry me. Canned raisins? Plump? Please.
Of course, they weren't raisins at all. They were hardened balls of frog meat. Actually, they were more like frog leather, hardened balls of frog leather. The crushed chiles worked overtime here. Boosted by a flesh-curing dose of salt, any discernible frogginess left in the can had retreated deep into the marrow — and even I wasn't going there.
Beset though the world's frog population may be, it has a friend in canned frog's legs: To try them is to swear off frog legs forever.
Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to firstname.lastname@example.org