Biologist and Professor with a Passion for Restoring Amphibians

amphibiansProfessor Alessandro Catenazzi investigation | Courtesy of FIU CASE Instagram

Ana Cedeno | Staff Writer

After spending two months in South America, Alessandro Catenazzi, FIU biologist and assistant professor of biological sciences, has found new ways in which to restore the dwindling frog populations in the neotropics.

Originally from Sweden, Catenazzi spent his childhood loving the outdoors. In his own words, it was how he knew instantly that he wanted to work in the field as a biologist.

After finishing primary and secondary education in Sweden he traveled to Miami to obtain his Ph.D. at FIU. A big reason for this, he says was his advisor, someone with whom he shares a workplace at FIU. 

Catezzani says he chose to study reptiles due to how accessible and easy to find they were. While obtaining his Ph.D., Catenazzi worked on different studies, one of which dealt with food webs and gecko populations. 

After gaining his Ph.D., Catezzani chose to specialize in frogs and reptiles after taking a postdoctoral position at the University Of South Florida. There, he took part in archival work on skinks and how they were threatened as a species, as well as a study on how natural fires can be beneficial in central Florida. 

He came back to FIU as a professor and biologist. He has since worked on multiple studies, the latest of which involved looking at a disease affecting frog populations. The study is funded by the National Science Foundation, starting in 2021, and has been ongoing since.

“It’s killing hundreds of species of frogs and driving them to extinction,” he said. “It’s kind of the COVID of frogs, but much worse. It’s been going on for over 40 years now. It’s a pandemic.”

While the study Catezzani was published in was about multiple threats to amphibians such as loss of habitat, this disease in particular was said to be a big factor in their decline.

According to Catezzani the disease is fungal and affects the frog’s skin and its ability to function, something that he said is important due to the fact that frogs have small lungs and do some of their breathing through their skin. It also affects their ability to do water exchange and eventually affects their ability to control their muscles.  

Due to it being fungal, it’s harder to combat than bacterial or viral diseases, and it has infected frogs and is spreading at such a rate that it’s affecting their population.

The study consisted of documenting and following frog species for over two months to assess if they were still infected and what the effect on them was. According to Catezzani, there were multiple ideas on how to combat this pandemic but one of them was looking at the frogs that survived the disease. 

The findings showed among other things that some of the frogs seemed to cure themselves.

“They’re infected maybe the first time we captured them and, you know, two months later, four months later, they are, they’re no longer infected” he said. 

Some of the frogs seem to be able to do this by secreting specific bacteria that kill the fungus while others naturally create peptides that help defend against the illness. 

Regardless, he says that this is something that can help them understand how to continue to address this problem.

“We’re very interested obviously in understanding the difference in species that survive while other species go extinct,” he said. “Because there might be some key to help vulnerable species not to go extinct.”

While the results of the study as a whole show that the frog populations are sadly declining, both the study and Catezzani himself are hopeful that they can still be helped. 

“There’s something encouraging that some of the species that we thought have gone extinct have not,” he said. “It looks like some species are coming back. We hope that’s a trend that will continue.”

Catezzani also said that one of the ways this contributes to the program is that at this moment one of his students is catching frogs and administering a strain of bacteria that they have found is good at battling the fungus. 

“It’s kind of a very novel treatment,” he said adding that they won’t know if it will work until a few months from now but that “that will be really exciting. That means there is, you know, there is some, way of basically giving a probiotic treatment to the frogs to make them more resistant.”

The full study can be found published at nature.com and linked to a post on the College of Arts and Sciences’ social media page.

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