Save the salamanders: Area expert warns 
of fungus that may 
threaten US animals

Recorder Staff
Last modified: Friday, February 05, 2016
*Archive Article*
Those bright, orange salamanders that hikers spot in summer or fall, especially after a rainstorm, might be in danger.

A newly discovered fungus is killing salamanders in western Europe, and scientists are afraid the deadly disease may spread to the United States’ nearly 190 species of salamanders — the most diverse population of those critters in the world.

“The Smithsonian called them hidden jewels because they are really brightly colored,” says U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist Evan Campbell Grant, who’s based at the Silvio Conte Anadromous Fish Research Laboratory in Turners Falls. He’s describing red-spotted newts, which spend most of their time hidden underground or under rocks. But while their orange skin has toxins to protect them from predators, exposure to a newly discovered fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, is deadly.

Red-spotted newts, also known as red efts or eastern newts, are just one of the many salamander species that may die if exposed to the pathogen, says Grant, a lead author of a new USGS report formulating a disease-management plan to protect and respond to a potential crisis that could threaten the salamander population in New England and throughout the United States.

Scientists believe the deadly fungus is likely to emerge in this country because of the pet trade and the popularity of the creatures in classrooms and zoos throughout the United States. As a precaution, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service plans to restrict importation of pet salamanders into the country.

Over the last two decades, amphibian populations have been declining, and are now the most endangered group of vertebrates worldwide. Other funguses have contributed to extinctions and amphibian die-offs.

“This new pathogen is a major threat, with the potential to exacerbate already severe amphibian declines,” said Grant, who works for the USGS’s Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative.

The fungus likely originated in Asia and appeared in Europe through the import and export of salamanders. Discovered by scientists in 2013, it has already caused mass die-offs in the United Kingdom and Germany.

“The increasing pace of global commerce and emergence of new infectious diseases put vulnerable native wildlife populations at risk of extinction,” said Grant. “Managing disease threats to the 191 species of U.S. salamanders is essential for the global conservation of salamanders.

“The U.S. is this really globally important place for this group of animals,” said Grant. “We have the unusual opportunity to develop and apply preventative management actions in advance.”

One of the first lines of defense is early detection at key import locations, in high-risk wild populations, and in samples collected in the field.

Researchers don’t know how the fungus is transmitted or specifics on how the disease spreads, but they do know it could be devastating for the critters that hold an important role in local ecosystems throughout the country.

“They are just interesting and beautiful animals. Folks think there is value to keeping them around and preserving them,” said Grant, who lives in Deerfield.

“It’s pretty neat to be living in an area where we have this.”

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You can reach Lisa Spear at:
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