Meet Reid Harris, ASA’s Director of International Disease Mitigation. Reid is an expert in amphibian diseases and is working to reduce their impact on global amphibian populations. Reid developed the idea of using skin probiotics to combat a lethal chytrid fungus that has decimated amphibian populations globally. He was a delegate to the 2005 Amphibian Conservation Summit that led to the development of the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan, and continues to contribute to this road map for global action through the Emerging Infectious Diseases Working Group. He was recently elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his research in amphibian microbial ecology and probiotics. We are extremely fortunate to have him as part of our team!
What got you interested in amphibians?
I got interested in amphibians as a child when I flipped a rock near my parent’s cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the US and found a red eft, which is the terrestrial juvenile stage of the eastern newt. From there, I was fascinated to find a lot of different terrestrial and stream-breeding species in the mountains. While an undergraduate, I discovered the lab of Dr. Henry Wilbur at Duke University, who studies the ecology and evolution of amphibians. He and his graduate students took me under their wing. At that point, it was clear that making a career out of teaching and ecological research with amphibians at a university was possible.
What are you currently working on for ASA?
In general, I advise the ASA secretariat about disease issues and funding decisions related to research on disease mitigation. Most of my time has been involved with helping to coordinate a response to the lethal salamander pathogen Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) if and when it invades North America. It is currently spreading in Europe, but does not appear to be in North America as yet. I was chair of the North American Bsal Task Force for two years, and as part of that role I spearheaded the completion of “A North American Strategic Plan to Control Invasions of the Lethal Salamander Pathogen Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans.” This plan includes as its centerpiece a response plan to Bsal that can be customized by local management authorities to meet their needs. This effort has been highly collaborative with members from academia, governments, NGOs and the private sector participating and represents a rare situation where advance planning to a disease threat is possible.
Why should we worry about amphibian diseases?
We have seen from Bd, which is related to Bsal, that amphibian diseases can cause massive population declines and extinctions. About 40% of amphibian species at a site in the mountains of Panama were lost to Bd, although some may be rediscovered. Bsal is leading to extirpation of fire salamander populations in Europe. Amphibian species have a number of beneficial effects in ecosystems. For example, terrestrial salamanders control the abundance of leaf-shredding insects. If these salamanders decline, leaf shredding increases, which leads to more rapid leaf decomposition on the forest floor. The decomposition is due to microbial action, and these microbes give off CO2 as they respire. Some estimates suggest that a drastic reduction of terrestrial salamanders could lead to large increases of CO2 from the forest floor with concomitant effects on climate change. As another example, salamander species, such as the eastern newt, are keystone species in pond communities where their presence keeps weaker tadpole species from going extinct.
What are some of the most promising techniques to help mitigate amphibian diseases?
There are several types of action that can be taken. With regard to Bsal, ASA has long advocated for a “clean trade” program, so that amphibians in the pet trade are certified as disease free. A clean trade program has the potential to keep Bsal out of North America. To control pathogens in a local area, several strategies show some promise including treatment with anti-fungal probiotics, anti-fungal chemicals and vaccinations. More research is needed into disease mitigation options.
How are ASA partners responding to amphibian disease threats?
One example is the Mountain Chicken Recovery Programme’s SAFE project. This species of frog was almost driven to extinction by Bd, but the frog has been bred in survival assurance colonies. Reintroductions have focused on areas that are warm enough to kill Bd during part of the year, and this plan is showing signs of success.