Global stressors and the global decline of amphibians: tipping the stress immunocompetency axis
There is a widespread consensus that the earth is experiencing a mass extinction event and at the forefront are amphibians, the most threatened of all vertebrate taxa. A recent assessment found that nearly one-third (32%, 1,856 species) of the world’s amphibian species are threatened. Amphibians have existed on the earth for over 300 million years, yet in just the last two decades there have been an alarming number of extinctions, nearly 168 species are believed to have gone extinct and at least 2,469 (43%) more have populations that are declining. Infectious diseases have been recognized as one major cause of worldwide amphibian population declines. This could be the result of the appearance of novel pathogens, or it could be that exposure to environmental stressors is increasing the susceptibility of amphibians to opportunistic pathogens. Here I review the potential effects of stressors on disease susceptibility in amphibians and relate this to disease emergence in human and other wildlife populations. I will present a series of case studies that illustrate the role of stress in disease outbreaks that have resulted in amphibian declines. First, I will examine how elevated sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific since the mid-1970s have affected climate over much of the world and could be setting the stage for pathogen-mediated amphibian declines in many regions. Finally, I will discuss how the apparently rapid increase in the prevalence of amphibian limb deformities is linked to the synergistic effects of trematode infection and exposure to chemical contaminants.