A fungus that has been decimating populations of salamanders in Europe could do the same in the U.S., say scientists who are urging a ban on importing salamanders as pets.

Salamander experts at the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University are calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban such imports until scientists can formulate a plan for detecting the fungus and preventing its spread into wild salamander populations in the U.S.

The fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, has resulted in a 96 percent fatality rate in European salamander species since it was discovered there in 2013. Scientists are concerned the same could happen in the U.S., which saw almost three-quarters of a million salamanders imported from 2010 to 2014.

Almost all of those came from Asia, where the fungus is thought to have originated. Popular around the world as pets, salamanders are often traded across borders, making their way into Europe by way of the pet trade.

Despite ongoing attempts by scientists to lobby for a ban in the U.S., the government has been slow to respond, the researchers say.

"This is an imminent threat, and a place where policy could have a very positive effect," says SF State biologist Vance Vredenburg. "We actually have a decent chance of preventing a major catastrophe."

Salamanders are one of the most numerous vertebrate animals in North American ecosystems, where they fill important ecological roles, he says.

"They are very important predators of insects, but also an important part of the food chain," he notes.

In laboratory tests, the fungus has proved fatal to a number of species of salamanders common in America.

Two of them — the iconic Eastern newt of the Eastern U.S. and the rough-skinned newt found all over the Pacific Coast — are particularly susceptible to it, researchers say.

That makes a U.S. ban all the more urgent, they say.

"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," says study co-author Michelle Koo at UC Berkeley.

More than 200 species of amphibians have become extinct or are near extinction because of a related fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, making it the most devastating kind of infectious wildlife disease ever recorded, Vredenburg says.

"I have seen the effects of Bd on frogs, to the point where I've seen tens of thousands of animals die in the wild in pristine areas, here in California, right in front of my eyes," he says.

Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal, is even worse, says study co-author David Wake of UC Berkeley.

"Bsal is an acute infection that just turns [salamanders] into little masses of slime in three to four days," he explains.

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