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Charlotte native’s heroic mission is saving the frogs

Dannye Romine Powell
Dannye Romine Powell writes on life in Charlotte and the Carolinas for the Local section of The Charlotte Observer.

You might’ve known.

He was the kid who grew up across Ridgewood Avenue from Wing Haven, the garden-and-bird sanctuary of the late Eddie and Elizabeth Clarkson, with birds hopping all over him during visits.

The kid who ordered an incubator with quail eggs from the back of Boy’s Life magazine and raised one of the babies – a female – for years.

The pre-teen who turned over a log in Little Switzerland and out darted a salamander.

“I was so excited,” says Reid Harris today. “I said to myself: ‘I really like this thing. Look, this is what I want to study!’ ”

Earlier this year, Harris, 57, a Myers Park High grad with a post-doctorate in zoology from Duke University and a master’s in ecology from the University of Maryland, was named a fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That’s the world’s largest scientific society and publisher of the journal Science.

He is professor of biology at James Madison University in Virginia.

Good vs. bad bacteria

In August, Harris will head to Madagascar in hopes of protecting a population of frogs, which are highly susceptible to a skin fungus that’s already wiped out at least 200 of the world’s 6,700 amphibian species.

Ask him how the fungus kills the frogs, and you hear the kid in him again.

“You don’t see anything dramatic until the end,” he says. “Then they become lethargic. There’s hemorrhaging of the skin. It’s horrible. I just want to cry.”

So how to combat this epidemic?

Magic word: probiotics, which simply means using good-guy bacteria to treat bad-guy bacteria.

“We hear the word bacteria,” says Harris, “and we think, ‘Horrible! Terrible!’ ”

But he reminds us that we each have 10 times as many bacterial cells in our bodies as we do our own body cells.

“The vast majority of those bacteria are neither helpful nor harmful,” he says. “But some are actually helping line the gut to help prevent the nasty bacteria from getting a foothold.”

Which is why, he said, we eat yogurt after taking antibiotics.

Same principle applies to frogs. Except their fungus is external rather than internal.

Halting an epidemic

The Madagascar frogs – about 400 species of them – are so far free of the fungus. But their diversity and their closely packed living conditions make them highly susceptible.

So thanks to a grant from a conservation organization in the Middle East, Harris and his team will go first into the tropical rain forests of Madagascar and collect samples from about 400 frogs of various species.

Back in the Madagascar lab, they’ll scrape bacteria from the skin of these healthy frogs and return with the bacterial samples to the U.S. In the lab here, they’ll culture the good bacteria. Some cultures, Harris says, will be orange, some fluorescent green, some purple or white. The team will begin to test each batch against the fungus.

Some won’t prove to be a fungal barrier. Others likely will. Harris and his team will take those positive cultures back to Madagascar in hopes the cultured bacteria will inoculate – and thereby save – the frog populations there. (For more information: www.frogprobiotics.org.)

A heroic mission, I’d say.

But let’s not fail to give a nod to Harris’ parents – Mildred and Ed – who, he says, were early on very indulgent of the quail eggs in the house, as well as a bobcat and more than a couple of snakes.

Dannye: 704-358-5230; dpowell@charlotteobserver.com
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