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ST. GEORGE • A research team from southern Utah's Dixie State College is studying the relationship between a fungus and frogs in Zion National Park.
A four-student team and biology professor Curt Walker have climbed into the park's slot canyons to examine the Zion's Canyon Tree Frog.
The team is checking to see if the small, brown creatures have contracted the Chytrid fungus, The Spectrum of St. George reported.
One of Walker's students first detected the fungus in the park last year. Scientists say the fungus has been linked to the deaths of nearly one-third of the world's amphibian population.
So far, students have found no evidence of fungus-related frog deaths in Zion.
"Zion is so isolated, we were hoping we wouldn't find it here, but we've found it," said Heather Jorgensen, a senior biology major, during a trip to the park for research Friday.
Jorgensen, with fellow students Crystal Burtis, Alex Nelson and Jackie Mertin, hope their rock-scaling and time spent hunting tadpoles in murky water could produce data that could lead to a better understanding of the fungus and its effects.
The team is studying frog population counts and the chemical makeup of the water in slot canyon pools.
It's the third year that Walker has brought students into the park to study frogs and fungus.
"Amphibians are typically considered a keystone species, meaning they play a key role in the food chain," said Walker, who explains that Zion's zoology could change significantly if the insect-eating frogs disappear.
Scientists haven't yet determined how Chytrid affects each species of frog, although it is generally believed that frogs that depend less on breathing through their skin may have better defenses against the fungus Zion's frogs spend much of their time lounging in the sun.
"They don't have to rely entirely on the respiration through their wet skin," Jorgensen said, although more study is needed to know for sure whether that's what is saving the Zion frogs.
For now, Walker's team says they remain optimistic about the Zion frog population.