Chytrid Fungus, Toxic Fundamentalism, and the Mass Extinction of Frogs and Freedoms


3-27-06, 9:09 am

The first law of ecology is this: all things are interconnected - even frogs and freedom.

I was reminded of this recently while looking at a magazine. In it, I came across a picture of a Costa Rican Golden Toad - a tiny, bright orange amphibian with large, gentle black eyes. The toad was one of ten fantastic looking amphibians featured on the page, all set against a stark background of black.

Although the other amphibians on the page were more strangely shaped and more beautifully colored, I wistfully looked long and hard at that particular toad, the way I look at old pictures of people in bowler hats and corseted dresses. Why? Because, like the people in those pictures, that Costa Rican Golden Toad was dead. In fact, all Costa Rican Golden Toads are now dead, extinct - gone forever, like Eurasian Aurochs and Ice Age Saber-Toothed Tigers.

Looking at that Golden Toad's delicate features, I felt a dark, queasy sadness. And this uncomfortable feeling only grew with the knowledge that this lost species of delicate toad was hardly alone. In fact, for nearly three decades many of the world's frogs and toads have been dying, and dying at an unprecedented rate: 168 of 5,700 amphibian species have already disappeared, while half the remaining species are endangered, with nearly 2,000 of these threatened with impending extinction.

But this dark tale gets worse.

Recently, the mass extinction of amphibians has sharply increased, with thousands of frogs literally dropping from trees and floating belly up - all dead. Why?

The aggressive human destruction of the amphibians' habitat remains a prime cause. Man-made air and water pollution, deforestation, and global warming have all had catastrophic effects on the extraordinarily sensitive amphibians. But now many frogs and toads are dying from another cause: a mysterious toxic fungus - chytrid fungus - spreading rapidly across America and Australia. This fungus attacks and kills frogs and toads by upsetting the delicate water balance in their skin. The horrific result to date is the rapid extinction of dozens of species.

Worse still, most traditional means of human intervention for assistance - conservation and habitat protection - are useless. In fact, the only effective, long-term solution to this global problem is this: humans must think differently about how we interact with, utilize, and protect the world's ecosystems.

But such thinking - thinking that respects open, flexible, and compassionate discussion; thinking that understands the environmental cost to our reckless, progress-driven, oil-fueled market economy - comes smack up against another growing, toxic fungus: neo-conservative fundamentalism.

Not coincidentally - over the same three decades witness to the catastrophic loss of amphibian species - another mass extinction has been underway: the death of liberty, equality, justice, and freedom. The birth and rapid growth, in the mid-1970s, of toxic neo-conservative politics has aggressively polluted a political environment once conducive to the healthy existence of Enlightenment Age, human freedoms.

Slowly, but steadily - beginning with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and moving through George Bush the First and then Bill 'The Third-Way' Clinton - long enshrined, hard fought for liberties have become first vulnerable, and then critically endangered. And now, in just five years under George Bush the Second, an unprecedented, fast-spreading, neo-conservative fundamentalist fungus has driven many of America's founding ideals into extinction.

Consider the extinction of the following amendments to the United States' Constitution: Amendment I - freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition; Amendment IV - freedom from illegal search and seizure; Amendment V - the right to due process; Amendment VI - the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him, and the right to have the assistance of counsel for defense; and Amendment VIII - the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Under President George W. Bush, all these once vibrant, foundational laws of US society have withered and died, killed off by the neo-conservative, fundamentalist fungus.

Worse still, both mass extinctions suggest something more frightening. The demise of so many of the world's amphibian species - like the proverbial canary dying in the coalmine - suggests the general collapse of the world's ecosystems. And equally disturbing, the demise of four fundamental amendments to the US Constitution suggests the impending collapse of US democracy and freedoms.

What to do?

Frankly, our prospects for both look grim. Still, there may still be time to make a difference. The deep wisdom that comes with recognizing mass extinctions as harbingers of larger, catastrophic events also invites original thinking and meaningful solutions. And as the first law of ecology states: all things are interconnected - both problems and their solutions.

And who knows, dire as things seem, we may yet find the wisdom to save both - frogs and freedom.

--Steven Laffoley ( is an American writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the author of .