The U.S. imports thousands of salamanders per year, a trade that scientists warned should be banned in order to stop the spread of a deadly fungus that kills nearly every salamander that it infects.
The Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) fungus likely came from China and was spread through pet trade. When this fungus arrived in Europe, it resulted in 96 percent fatality rate among infected European salamander species. Researchers have found that Bsal is likewise fatal to American salamanders that were exposed to it in the lab.
Bsal exists in harmony with salamander species in Asia as these appeared to have had millions of years of evolution that made them able to deal with the fungus. Half of the species of salamander, however, live in North America, where the species have not been exposed to Bsal, which means that they have no resistance against the fungus.
Bsal does not appear to have landed in North America yet but once it arrives, researchers said that the fungus could eliminate all of the native North American population of salamanders.
The threat is particularly alarming because North America is considered the center for salamander diversity worldwide with 48 percent of all known species of the animal thriving in North and Central America. Among are those believed to be the most vulnerable to the fungus.
Salamanders are also insect predators that are considered an important link in the food chain and a threat to their population could have devastating impact.
Scientists proposed stopping the importation of salamander to prevent the spread of the fungus particularly in high risk regions such as Sierra Nevada. They have already requested the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to immediately ban the import of live salamanders to the U.S. until better plans are in place to prevent transmission of infection.
Some of the most commonly traded species of salamander such as the blue-tailed fire-bellied newt, the Japanese fire-bellied newt, and the Vietnamese salamander, are believed to be main Bsal carriers.
"With no effective means to control spread of Bsal once it is established in wild host populations, Bsal invasion of North America could lead to rapid epizootic (wildlife epidemic) declines and extinctions in the world's richest and most diverse salamander fauna," wrote study researcher Vance Vredenburg, from San Francisco State University, and colleagues in their report published in the journal Science on July 30.