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article imageScientists: Ban live salamander imports to stop deadly fungus

By Megan Hamilton     Aug 1, 2015 in Environment
Scientists in the U.S. are calling for a ban on the import of live salamanders to save their wild brethren from a deadly fungus that has wiped out their populations in the Netherlands and caused a rapid decline in salamander populations across Europe.
Salamanders are immensely popular pets, the University of California Berkeley notes. Nearly three quarters of a million salamanders were imported into the U.S. between 2010 and 2014. Out of that number, 99 percent were imported from Asia, where scientists believe the fungus originated.
Scientists say the ban is necessary to stop the skin-eating fungal disease Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, also known as Bsal, from spreading from the pet trade to wild populations where there currently aren't any ways to control it effectively, The Guardian reports.
First identified in the Netherlands, the pathogen has been blamed for the extinction of yellow and black fire salamanders. The disease is believed to have originated in Asia and has devastated salamander populations across Europe by eroding their delicate skin and often killing them. Specifically, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and Japan are some of the countries implicated in this.
Thursday, in a study published in the journal Science, scientists from San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley and UCLA highlighted regions in the U.S. where native salamanders are most likely to be at risk, and noted that these little amphibians are a crucial part of forest ecosystems, The Los Angeles Times reports. They have asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to immediately ban the importation of live salamanders until controls are in place to prevent the spread of this deadly fungus.
"This is an imminent threat, and a place where policy could have a very positive effect," said study coauthor Vance Vredenburg, a biologist at San Francisco State University, in a statement. "We actually have a decent chance of preventing a major catastrophe."
Since it was first recognized in 2013, the rapacious fungus has had a 96 percent fatality rate in the European salamander species that it infected, UC Berkeley reports. Asian salamander species are largely able to tolerate the fungus.
What makes a ban so important is that a recent study showed two common American species – the rough-skinned newt and the Eastern newt (also called the red eft) of the Eastern U.S. – are highly susceptible to this nasty ailment. Bsal is related to another fungus – Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), or chytrid fungus – that has devastated frog and salamander populations worldwide.
The rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa) is very susceptible to the deadly fungus.
The rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa) is very susceptible to the deadly fungus.
Wikimedia commons USGS
"This fungus is much worse than the chytrid fungus, which is more like a lingering disease that affects the skin and puts stress on the salamander until it dies," said UC Berkeley professor David Wake, who is the director and founder of AmphibiaWeb, an online database specializing on amphibian biology. "Bsal is an acute infection that just turns them into little masses of slime in three to four days."
Even though the ban is supported by key scientists and the Center for Biological Diversity has initiated an online petition in May to enact the ban, the federal government has been dragging its heels.
"There is a lot at stake here if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't stop imports now to prevent the introduction of this devastating pathogen to North America," said Michelle Koo, a coathor of the study and a researcher at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Koo is also an associate director at AmphibiaWeb.
In the study, the researchers noted that North America is "the world's biodiversity hot spot." Some 48 percent of 676 recognized salamander species make their home here and they are members of nine out of ten known families in the order Caudata, The Los Angeles Times reports. By studying habitats on the continent along with salamander species richness, the researchers identified three zones that were at high risk for Bsal infection: the Southeast near the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, the Pacific Northwest and the Sierra Nevada, and the highlands in Central Mexico.
These zones, the scientists said, are home to scores of species from the two families that are most susceptible to the Bsal fungus – the Plethodontidae and Salamandridae.
By analyzing the imports of these little amphibians between 2010 and 2014, the scientists determined that the overwhelming majority were Bsal threats. Los Angeles was found to be the largest port of entry, with 419,890 over this period, and of that number, 418,692 were considered Bsal threats.
In many North American ecosystems, salamanders are the most abundant vertebrates, and they are top predators of insects and other invertebrates, Vredenburg said, per The Guardian. They are also a key food source for larger predators, including birds, mammals, and snakes.
"So if major losses of salamanders occur, we could experience degradation of healthy ecosystems, which could lead to issues beyond where they occur now," he said.
There is a ray of hope, he added. Vredenburg has studied the Bd fungus and its devastating effects on amphibians for several years, and there is still time to do something to prevent this, he notes, per The Los Angeles Times.
"With Bd, no one could even imagine that one pathogen could cause so much damage across all these different species because we had never seen anything like that before," he said. "What's encouraging about this time, with Bsal, is that the scientific community figured it out really quickly, and we can learn a lesson from the past."
There still may be trouble ahead, because previous efforts at banning the import of live salamanders have failed, and some are worried that government officials may not act soon enough to impose tougher controls or a ban on imports for the lucrative pet trade, The Guardian reports.
"The potential for bureaucratic delays is very real and worrisome, as Bsal could arrive within the USA any day," said Peter Jenkins, president of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention. "Unfortunately the US Fish and Wildlife Service regulatory authority and capacity for addressing wildlife pathogens are weak and barely adequate to the task of stopping Bsal."
As this article in National Geographic notes, salamanders have existed for millions of years. If we are to save them, tighter trade protocols are in order.
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