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Ecotoxicol Environ Saf. 2004 May;58(1):7-16.

Assessment of environmental stressors potentially responsible for malformations in North American anuran amphibians.

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Mid-Continent Ecology Division, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Office of Research and Development, US Environmental Protection Agency, 6201 Congdon Boulevard, Duluth, MN 55804-2595, USA.


Several species of anuran amphibians from different regions across North America have recently exhibited an increased occurrence of malformations, predominantly of the hindlimb. Research concerning the potential causes of these malformations has focused extensively on three stressors: chemical contaminants, ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and parasitic trematodes. In this overview of recent work with each of these stressors, we assess their plausibility as contributors to the malformations observed in field-collected amphibians. There is as yet little evidence that chemical contaminants are responsible for the limb malformations. This includes chemicals, such as the pesticide methoprene, that could affect retinoid-signaling pathways that are critical to limb development. Exposure to UV radiation also seems to be an unlikely explanation for hindlimb malformations in amphibians. Although solar UV can cause hindlimb deficiencies in amphibians, a probabilistic assessment based on empirical dose-response and exposure data indicates that UV exposures sufficient to induce limb defects would be uncommon in most wetlands. Results of controlled studies conducted with some affected species and field-monitoring work suggest infection by digenetic trematodes as a promising explanation for the malformations observed in anurans collected from many field sites. Controlled experimentation with additional species and monitoring across a broader range of affected sites are required to assess fully the role of trematodes in relation to other stressors in causing limb malformations. If trematode infestations are indeed related to the recent increases in malformed amphibians, then the question remains as to what alterations in the environment might be causing changes in the distribution and abundance of the parasites.

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