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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

In Hopes Of Halting Deadly Fungus, Scientists Give Toads A Bath

Courtesy of Tim Korpita
A fungus is killing off Boreal toads, a type of toad specifically adapted to high-altitude life in the southern Rocky Mountains.

There’s a fungus wiping out a special kind of toad that lives in the Rocky Mountains, but scientists may have a solution: a probiotic skin soak.

The boreal toad is a tough little animal, with a lifespan longer than a decade, about half of which is spent buried underneath a thick layer of snow high up in the mountains.

“They’re really impressive little guys,” says Tim Korpeta, a graduate student in biology at the University of Colorado Boulder who has recently embodied another title: toad-bather.

He and colleagues with the university and Colorado Parks and Wildlife spent last summer soaking tadpoles in a purple probiotic juice dubbed ‘Purple Rain’ that appears to help the animals keep the deadly fungus at bay.

“We just put them in a bucket with a bunch of bacteria. The probiotic we’re using produces a bright purple pigment, hence the name ‘Purple Rain,’” says Korpita. “They swim around in there for a day and bacteria get on their skin, hopefully providing some protection against the pathogen.”

Initial findings showed that bathing late-stage tadpoles did the trick, keeping good bacteria thriving on the animals’ skin.

Korpita and his colleagues will be at it again this summer, washing toads raised in captivity before sending them out into the wild to, they hope, repopulate areas that are now toad-less.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.