Infection That is Killing Amphibians in Europe Could Spread to U.S.

A fire salamander showing signs of fungal infection through skin lesions. A study suggests that the fungus, called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, may have reached Europe through the pet trade from Asia. (PHOTO CREDIT: Frank Pasmans/Ghent University)
A fire salamander showing signs of fungal infection through skin lesions. A study suggests that the fungus, called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, may have reached Europe through the pet trade from Asia. (PHOTO CREDIT: Frank Pasmans/Ghent University)

An emerging infection similar to one that has caused the extinction of hundreds of frog and toad species around the world is killing salamanders in Europe and could easily spread to the United States, with disastrous effects, scientists reported Thursday.

Writing in the journal Science, an international team of 27 researchers blamed the spread of the disease on “globalization and a lack of biosecurity” and said the importation of the fire-bellied newt in the pet trade with Asia was the likely cause.

The lead researcher, An Martel of Ghent University in Belgium, said in an interview that Europe and the United States needed to start screening amphibians in the pet trade.

“When animals are traded, they should be screened,” Dr. Martel said. “It should involve the world.”

Other scientists agreed. “We need to pay attention to this paper,” said Vance T. Vredenburg of San Francisco State University, one of the scientists who has sounded the alarm about the extinction of hundreds of frog and toad species worldwide over the last four decades.

“We need to think about biosecurity not just in terms of humans and food that we eat and crops that we grow,” he said. “We need to think about functioning ecosystems.”

Dr. Vredenburg is a co-author of a 2008 paper that described the disappearance of frog species as a prime example of what some scientists call the sixth extinction, a mass death of species going on now caused by humans.

In the frog disappearances, the culprit, a fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, was not identified until decades after the extinctions had begun. Where it originated is still not known.

The effects of that fungus, Dr. Vredenburg said, represent “the worst case in recorded history of a single pathogen affecting vertebrates,” causing an “extinction rate 40,000 times higher than in the last 350 million years for amphibians.”

The fungus killing salamanders and newts, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, is in the same genus, and it also kills animals by infecting the skin. But this time, Dr. Vredenburg said: “We found it early enough to have a chance. The Titanic knows there’s an iceberg out there.”

The United States, as yet untouched by the infection, has the greatest biodiversity of salamanders in the world, and many of its species are already threatened or endangered.

The animals are seldom noticed but are an integral part of forest and aquatic ecosystems, as predators and prey.

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SOURCE: NY Times
James Gorman

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