North America is home to 190 of the world’s 655 identified salamander species and while they have avoided a deadly fungus that has ravaged the salamander population in Europe, Evan Grant and other wildlife biologists fear its arrival to our shores.
Nasty fungus and a horrible death for salamander population
A group of biologists with the U.S. Geological Survey are presently looking into the salamander population in the United States hoping to take samples from 10,000 salamanders across the nation to make sure that the U.S. salamander population has not seen begun to see the almost inevitable arrival of the fungus.
The fungus essentially covers the amphibian with ulcers that eat the skin or simply killing it, if it survives this first stage the animal is left vulnerable to infection while beginning its descent into respiratory failure that will finish the job.
“We have the highest biodiversity of salamanders in the world,” said David Hoskins, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s fish and aquatic conservation program. “We were concerned that once the fungus reaches the United States, if it was introduced into wild populations, it could become established and spread and potentially wipe out important species of salamanders.”
So far the team has sampled just shy of 1,000 salamanders and has found no evidence of this deadly fungus but they’ve not traveled from Vermont to Oregon and other areas that are home to the wealth of salamanders in the States.
The fungus is closely related to a fungus that arrived in Europe about seven years ago and killed potentially millions of frogs.
Pet industry and importation of salamanders
Salamanders are considerably more popular pets than you might imaging and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put strict limitations on the import of salamanders given the pet trades ability to rapidly affect animals coast-to-coast.
An Martel, a Belgian professor that discovered the fungus in Holland warns of its dangers.
“Very few animals are left,” Martel said. “It has had a huge impact. The populations where the fungus is present are almost gone. We don’t find any salamanders anymore.”
Presently Evan Grand and his colleague Adrianne Brand are trapping red-spotted newts in a pond in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest for testing while others are hard at work down the Atlantic coast to Florida with others working in Louisiana and other southern states along with yet another group on the west coast.
The fungus known as Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, commonly called Bsal has yet to be discovered. Grant and Brand are swabbing the hands of the newts there are catching and releasing and freezing the test tubes in which the swabs are stored. From there, they ship them to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin where they undergo testing.
This same process is being repeated wherever the salamander calls home in the United States. While it may not sound like the end of the world if salamanders were facing mass deaths, the fungus’ ability to seemingly mutate and cross over to additional amphibians is certainly disheartening.
Ecosystems are fragile and the elimination of species will have ramifications for more than just potential pet owners.
“For salamander diversity, I would hope not to find it,” Brand said. “But it is an interesting scientific issue. We have a chance to learn a lot. If it is a problem, we have a lot to learn about being on the forefront of disease.”