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European Salamander Falls Prey To Deadly Fungus, And Scientists Worry About Its Future

21 April 2017, 7:07 am EDT By Alexandra Lozovschi Tech Times
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Fire salamanders In Europe are facing possible extinction due to a skin-eating fungal disease. Infected amphibians rapidly succumb to the deadly Asian fungus, which could even reach the United States through the pet trade.  ( Frank Pasmans | University of Zurich )

Yet another wildlife species has fallen victim to a deadly fungus that could potentially result in significant biodiversity loss.

Nearly a month after Tech Times reported about three species of Texas bats carrying the Pd fungus, putting them at risk for the lethal white nose syndrome, biologists warn salamanders are in danger of being decimated.

Researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland reveal that fire salamander populations in Europe are under threat from an invasive skin-eating fungus.

Working together with biologists from the University of Ghent in Belgium, the scientists determined there are little to no means of saving the amphibians once they become infected.

A university press release describes the situation as "alarming," considering only a small number of these amphibians have shown resistance to the fungus, ominously called the "devourer of salamanders."

The team presented their conclusions in a study, featured April 19 in the journal Nature.

Their paper attests to the fungus' virulence and cautions that, if the blight continues to expand, it could "behave as a 'perfect storm' that is able to rapidly extirpate highly susceptible salamander populations across Europe."

Little Chance Of Survival

The fungal disease threatening salamanders comes from Asia and is assumed to have been brought to Europe via pet trade. Here, it has recently led to mass mortality of this species in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, the study shows.

Known as Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal, the fungus is highly aggressive and attacks the animals' skin, which is soon covered in ulcers and eventually becomes necrotic, making the amphibians vulnerable to secondary bacterial infections.

Once they contract Bsal, the amphibians only survive briefly, observe the biologists, who studied fire salamanders in Belgium for two years immediately after the first signs of infection.

"Pathogen arrival was associated with a rapid and sustained population collapse," indicates the study's summary.

"Our mark-and-recapture data shows that only 13 percent of the infected salamanders survive over a 10-day period," says Benedikt Schmidt, research team leader and a biologist at the University of Zurich's Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Sciences.

Schmidt adds that healthy salamanders are very susceptible to the fungus, as a large proportion of them - a third of the studied group - contracted the disease in the same interval.

According to study lead author An Martel from the University of Ghent, the extremely high death rate threatens to reduce affected populations by more than 90 percent in just a matter of weeks, facing them with extinction.

No Possible Cure For Fire Salamanders In The Wild

Experiments showed the infection is so rampant that salamanders can't build up immunity to the fungus. The disease develops from merely touching the fungus spores, and a few sporadic ones are enough for the infection to ensue and eventually lead to death.

In addition, Bsal spores have thick walls that make them incredibly resilient to weather conditions and allow them to survive for long periods in both water and soil.

The highly persistent spores also seem to target sexually mature individuals, preventing them from producing new generations.

Fire salamanders are among the most susceptible species and biologists state these animals have no means of fighting the disease in their natural habitat.

Since Bsal spores are able to survive in nature for a long time, the reintroduction of the species "would also have few prospects for success," Schmidt points out.

"Classical measures to control animal diseases such as vaccination and repopulation will not be successful since there is no immunity buildup in these species and eradication of the fungus from the ecosystem is unlikely," Martel tells The Associated Press.

This leaves biologists with only one option: to keep a healthy population of fire salamanders in captivity. This could be the only way to save Europe's salamanders, at least until a cure is found, the study suggests.

Salamander Pet Trade Banned Preventively

Although the deadly Asian fungus hasn't yet reached Switzerland, the country has banned the importation of salamanders and newts as a preventive measure in an attempt to hinder the spread of the disease.

Study authors call for a Europe-wide system of monitoring the spread of the pathogen that can alert biologists to early warning signs. Many European species of salamander are already endangered and figure as red-listed in a lot of countries.

The pet trade could facilitate the spread of the fungus even to other continents. In 2015, salamander experts at the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University solicited a similar pre-emptive action.

The researchers urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban salamander imports in the United States lest the fungus decimate amphibian populations as it had already been doing in Europe at the time.

Fears of Bsal entering the United States escalated as early as 2014, when the fungus had just been identified in the Netherlands and was wreaking havoc amid salamanders in the wild.

Conservationists in the United States are already monitoring wetlands for signs of the fungus to save local salamander populations.

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