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While emerging diseases are affecting many populations of amphibians, some populations are resistant. Determining the relative contributions of factors influencing disease resistance is critical for effective conservation management. Innate immune defenses in amphibian skin are vital host factors against a number of emerging pathogens such as ranaviruses and the amphibian chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Adult water frogs from Switzerland (Pelophylax esculentus and P. lessonae) collected in the field with their natural microbiota intact were exposed to Bd after experimental reduction of microbiota, skin peptides, both, or neither to determine the relative contributions of these defenses.
Naturally-acquired Bd infections were detected in 10/51 P. lessonae and 4/19 P. esculentus, but no disease outbreaks or population declines have been detected at this site. Thus, this population was immunologically primed, and disease resistant. No mortality occurred during the 64 day experiment. Forty percent of initially uninfected frogs became sub-clinically infected upon experimental exposure to Bd. Reduction of both skin peptide and microbiota immune defenses caused frogs to gain less mass when exposed to Bd than frogs in other treatments. Microbiota-reduced frogs increased peptide production upon Bd infection. Ranavirus was undetectable in all but two frogs that appeared healthy in the field, but died within a week under laboratory conditions. Virus was detectable in both toe-clips and internal organs.
Intact skin microbiota reduced immune activation and can minimize subclinical costs of infection. Tolerance of Bd or ranavirus infection may differ with ecological conditions.