A 'Superfungus' May Lead to the Extinction of One of the World's Most Toxic Animals

A devastating "superfungus" threatens to wipe out a tiny, brightly-colored frog native to the cloud forests of Panama, Central America, that is one of the most toxic animals on Earth.

The Panamanian golden frog is currently listed as "Critically Endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

Despite once being relatively common, scientists say they have not been seen throughout their historic range since 2009 and are thought to have all but disappeared in the wild, although around 1,500 individuals are being kept in zoos and research centers around the world.

The Panamanian golden frog population has been decimated by a so-called "chytrid" fungus that causes a gruesome infectious disease known as chytridiomycosis. Habitat loss/fragmentation and over-collection by the pet trade have also played a role in their decline.

The fungus initially infects the skin of the frogs, before eventually causing irreversible damage to their vital functions and death via heart failure.

"It's a pretty dramatic and painful disease,"Angie Estrada, a biologist at Virginia Tech University, told the Agency France-Presse.

"When the fungus gets to a place where it wasn't, it affects populations very much and animals die en masse. It causes certain death in the individuals it infects. It's a devastating phenomenon," Gina Della Togna, a researcher from the University of Maryland, told the AFP.

The fungus, which spreads through water, was first identified in the latter half of the 20th century and has now been found around the globe, arriving in Panama in the 1990s.

"Anywhere in the world where there are amphibians, the fungus is already there," Estrada said.

But the golden frog is not the only species at risk in Panama. Roberto Ibanez, a researcher at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, located north of Panama City, where around 200 of the animals are being kept, said that around a third of the country's 225 amphibian species are threatened "in some way."

The biggest threat to these amphibians is chytridiomycosis, although deforestation and environmental destruction only make the problem worse. In fact, the disease caused by the fungus has already contributed to the extinction of around 30 species.

Panamanian golden frog
A Panamanian golden frog is seen at the El Nispero del Valle de Anton zoo, Panama, April 16, 2009. ELMER MARTINEZ/AFP/GettyImages

Furthermore, scientists have linked the disease to a global decline in amphibian populations, with one estimate suggesting it has affected around 30 percent of the world's amphibian species.

This week, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published a report which suggested that more than two-thirds of the world's vertebrate species have been wiped out in less than half a century, with tropical regions of Central and South America among the areas where the worst losses are occurring.

"Of all the different animals, amphibians are the world's most threatened," Della Togna said.

Panamanian golden frogs are among the most toxic animals in the world. The skin of a single frog—which grow only up to around 2.5 inches long—contains enough toxins to kill more than 1,000 mice, according to Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.