New Study: Deadly Skin-eating Fungus Threatens to Wipe Out Salamanders

International Trade Could Bring Highly Lethal Disease to United States

WASHINGTON—(ENEWSPF)–October 31, 2014.  The journal Science yesterday published a study documenting a new threat to the world’s salamanders from a deadly skin-eating fungus. A relative of the killer chytrid fungus that has devastated frog populations, the new disease called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bs, is sweeping through salamander populations in Europe. While the disease has not yet reached the United States, scientists found that imports of infected individuals pose a risk of spreading the highly lethal disease to native salamanders in the United States.

“If this disease is allowed to spread here in the United States, our salamanders will die off in mass numbers,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney and biologist who works to save endangered reptiles and amphibians. “Chytrid fungus, along with the white-nose syndrome that’s wiping out millions of our bats, has shown the devastating impacts of wildlife diseases. We need to do everything in our power to protect our nation’s amphibians and prevent the spread of this disease.”

The new fungus appears to specifically target salamanders and has practically wiped out fire salamanders in the Netherlands, reducing that population to only 4 percent of what it was just four years ago. It kills the amphibians by eating through their skin, exposing them to lethal bacterial infections. Luckily for other amphibians, the new fungus does not appear to kill frogs and toads.

Results from lab tests show that the disease is especially lethal to newts, which are a kind of salamander. Several species of newts are found in the United States, including the eastern newt, a common aquarium pet that is collected from the wild or purchased. The striped newt, found in Florida and Georgia, has been a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection since 2011.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must act fast to keep this disease from infecting wild salamanders in the United States,” said Peter Jenkins, president of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention. “With nearly 200 species, the United States is a global hotspot of salamander biodiversity. If we don’t act fast, we could lose these vital and popular animals from the wild.”

Infected individuals could reach the United States through the extensive commercial salamander trade. For example, more than 2.3 million individuals of Chinese fire-bellied newt were imported into the United States from 2001 to 2009. According to the study published today, the new fungus can effectively be transmitted across multiple salamander species through direct contact. The study warns that “the process of globalization with its associated human and animal traffic can rapidly erode ancient barriers to pathogen transmission” and these pathogens have “the potential to rapidly pose a threat of extinction.”

Scientists have developed a DNA-based test for detecting Bs, and infected animals held in captivity can be effectively treated with antifungal baths. But once the disease enters wild populations, it is nearly impossible to stop its spread to new populations. Environmental groups are calling for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to suspend all imports of salamanders into the United States unless they are certified to be free of the fungus.  

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 800,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.