The curious case of a frog and a fungus

  • Five herpetologists recently identified a frog with a mushroom growing on its skin in the Western Ghats.
  • Researchers say that although some fungi are known to grow on frogs’ skins, often parasitically, a mushroom growing on a live frog’s body has been recorded for the first time.
  • They recommend further investigation to ascertain the cause.

It was meant to be just another monsoon night of herping in the wild for five friends passionate about herpetology. A rainstorm was brewing in the foothills of the Kudremukh ranges of the Western Ghats; the air resounded with the chorus of Rao’s golden-backed frogs, a species endemic to southern India. As Lohit Y.T, a rivers and wetlands specialist with WWF India, prepared to retreat with his companions before the showers, something extraordinary caught his attention, causing the team to pause and linger.

Resting on a nearby twig, one of the frogs, Rao’s intermediate golden-backed frog (Hylarana intermedia), appeared to be carrying something on its side, which upon closer look, revealed itself to be an outgrowth of a mushroom.

Lohit recounts the experience from June 2023 and shares, “We were exploring various habitats near Mala village in Udupi in Karnataka, where we knew there was a pond. It was a casual night search for different herpetofauna and with the monsoon in full swing, the frogs, particularly Rao’s golden-backed frogs, were quite active.” Only one frog displayed the outgrowth, he told Mongabay-India.

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As the team wasn’t equipped for a sample collection, they had to let the animal go. Subsequently, Lohit shared this unusual finding with the scientific community. While the herpetologists could immediately identify the frog species carrying the mushroom as H. intermedia, the identification of the mushroom was done on citizen science platforms such as India Biodiversity Portal and iNaturalist, as Mycena or the bonnet mushroom.

“Fungi are known to grow on frogs’ skins, often parasitically and sometimes lethally. However, the phenomenon of a complete mushroom growing on a live frog’s body is unprecedented,” Sandeep Das, a scientist and amphibian expert based in Kerala, told Mongabay-India.

Batrachologist K.V. Gururaja is equally perplexed by this phenomenon, which he describes as “extremely rare”. While certain fungi are known to colonise frogs’ skins, the amphibian’s skin possesses antimicrobial properties that typically inhibit fungal penetration, thus safeguarding the animal from harm. However, the mushroom growth observed in this instance presents a unique case.

Gururaja conjectures that the frog may have remained stationary in one location for an extended period, allowing a specific set of circumstances to arise, conducive to mushroom growth. “Mushrooms typically thrive in moist environments with sufficient warmth and the presence of carbon,” he explains. He speculates that a deposit of carbon, possibly in the form of soil, combined with moisture, could have provided the necessary conditions for mushroom growth on the frog’s body. This unusual scenario suggests an intriguing interplay between environmental factors and biological processes, warranting further investigation, the experts say.

Read more: Why the dancing frog may no longer be able to shake a leg


Banner image: The Rao’s intermediate golden-backed frog spotted with a bonnet mushroom growing on its body near a pond in Mala village, Udupi. Photo by Lohit Y.T.

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