It was a researcher’s dream and simultaneously an ecological nightmare. Professor Ross Alford, of JCU in Townsville, began studying the ecology of tadpoles and frogs in the Wet Tropics rainforests in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, frog populations in the region began disappearing virtually before his eyes, specifically in high elevation areas of the wet tropics. Those events dictated the direction of his research for the next 15 years and still do today.
Professor Alford has always been most interested in the behaviour, physiology, and ecology of amphibians and reptiles. As a student at the University of Florida where he obtained his undergraduate and Masters degrees, a colleague pointed him in the direction of tadpoles. She suggested their natural mesocosms offered excellent research accessibility and opportunities.
His Masters’ and PhD research became focused on the ecology and behaviour of tadpoles and how they fit into freshwater ecosystems.
He completed his PhD at Duke University in North Carolina, studying with a world expert in tadpole and frog ecology. When a position became available at JCU in 1986 he saw an opportunity to concentrate on a location and an area of research that at the time were largely unexplored.
The decimation of frog populations in Townsville and in other wet tropics areas around the world was the catalyst for a major body of work for Professor Alford and his PhD students that has become increasingly focused since the reason for the frog population decline – chytridiomycosis, caused by the amphibian chytrid skin fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) - was finally discovered in 1998. “My research used to be on how animals interact with each other. Now it’s on how this pathogen interacts with frogs,” Professor Alford says.
His research focus on this particular interaction between host and pathogen led him into the field and to the understanding that higher elevations and lower temperature were crucial to the pathogen’s success, and critically, that frogs did possess defence mechanisms to combat Bd. This knowledge has in turn led to further research on the immune system of frogs, specifically the anti-microbial properties of their skin secretions, some of the most complex to be found in the animal kingdom.
“In my most recent collaboration we found that some of the many micro-organisms occurring on amphibian skins fight Bd,” he says.
“The idea that they can inhibit the growth of Bd was really exciting to me. That means it might be possible to manipulate bacteria in the field to protect frogs. Bd has spread in a short period of time and is probably going to go everywhere it isn’t already. Until this was discovered there wasn’t a lot you could do about it.”
The international scale of the chytridiomycosis problem has ensured a constant flow of cross-disciplinary and collaborative research for Professor Alford, including forming the JCU Amphibian Disease Ecology Group and working with many international key researchers in the fields of marine and tropical biology, public health, tropical medicine and veterinary science.
“I’ve come quite a long way from doing ecological experiments on tadpoles to this fairly complicated stuff with bacteria and molecular biology,” Professor Alford says, and he believes the opportunities for PhD students are equally challenging.
“There are opportunities to do really interesting basic research in areas that haven’t really been investigated before that may also have practical benefits in helping to conserve frogs.”