Fighting a fungal threat to Salamanders

A deadly new fungal infection is spreading through the pet trade

Plethodon jordani is a salamander species endemic to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Credit, Nick Caruso.

Plethodon jordani is a salamander species endemic to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Ecologist Karen K. Lips wants to protect P. jordani and other wild salamanders from exposure to a deadly new fungal infection that has appeared in captive salamanders in Europe.  Credit, Nick Caruso.

In the wake of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bt), the fungal skin infection that has exacted a devastating toll on amphibians around the world, a new, deadly fungus — that looks all too familiar — has appeared in European salamanders. Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) appears to have arrived in Europe with captive salamanders sold as pets. Salamanders in Asia can carry the infection without getting sick. But in Europe, Bsal kills 96% of the salamanders it infects. Biologists worry that the fungus will appear in the United States and other parts of the Americas next. So far, the Bsal fungus has only been afflicting captive Salamanders in Europe, which means we have a chance to protect wild Salamanders, and prevent the disease from spreading to other vulnerable populations around the world.

University of Maryland ecologist Karen K. Lips went to Capitol Hill yesterday to talk with policy makers about the importance of salamanders to ecosystems, the looming fungal threat, and how we might stop it. Her work was part of an annual exhibition organized by the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) to familiarize lawmakers with investments in research and education through the National Science Foundation.

Salamanders are amphibians – cold-blooded animals that typically start life in the water, breathing with gills, and metamorphose to adults that breathe with lungs and through their thin, permeable skin. Frogs, toads, newts, and caecilians are also amphibians. Amphibian species eat slugs, snails, worms, and insects, including insects that carry human diseases and afflict our crops. Some eat fish and even small mammals like mice. Amphibians are, in turn, eaten by many larger animals. They are critical parts of the ecosystems we live in and depend on. Recent decades have seen catastrophic losses due to pollution, disease, and the encroachment of human development.

“A group of pathogenic chytrid fungi have caused amphibian die-offs and population declines around the world, and we have not been able to eliminate the fungus from wild areas nor recover those populations,” said Lips. “We are faced with a new fungus that is not present in the US, but which is in the live animal trade and could be imported. Regulations are needed to prevent escapes of infected animals into the US.”

  • To learn more about salamander ecology and Bsal, check out Karen Lips’ lab page. Tweet @kwren88.
  • “Stopping the Next Amphibian Apocalypse.” NY Times Op-ed by Karen and Joe Mendelson (11.14.2014). Full Story
  • “Infection That Devastates Amphibians, Already in Europe, Could Spread to U.S.” James Gorman, NY Times (Oct. 30 2014).  Full Story 

The Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) is an alliance of
over 140 professional organizations, universities and businesses united by a concern for the future vitality of the national science, mathematics, and engineering enterprise. CNSF supports the goal of increasing the national investment in the National Science Foundation’s research and education programs in response to the unprecedented scientific, technological and economic opportunities facing the United States.