The scientists revealed Thursday, a rising infection, which is similar to the one that has caused the extinction of hundreds of frog and toad species worldwide is now killing salamanders in Europe and spreading towards the United States, with catastrophic effects.
The study is published in the ‘Science’ journal. An international team of 27 researchers said, “globalization and a lack of biosecurity” along with the importation of the fire-bellied newt in the pet trade with Asia are the major causes of the disease.
Dr. An Martel of Ghent University in Belgium and a lead researcher said, “Both Europe and the United States needed to start screening amphibians in the pet trade. When animals are traded they should be screened. It should involve the world.”
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 said, “Other scientists agreed. We need to pay attention to this study.”
“We need to think about biosecurity not just in terms of humans and food that we eat and crops that we grow, but about functioning ecosystems,” he added.
The co-author of the 2008 study was Dr. Vredenburg, who described the extinction of frog species as a prime example of what some scientists call the 6th extinction, a mass death of species going on now and caused by humans.
The culprit, in the case of the frog disappearance is a fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, and it was not identified, until decades, even after the extinctions had begun. The researchers are still unaware that from where it was originated.
Dr. Vredenburg said, the effects of that fungus, symbolize “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.”
Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, the fungus killing salamanders and newts, is of the same genus, and also kills animals by infecting the skin. However, this time, “We found it early enough to have a chance. The Titanic knows there’s an iceberg out there,” Dr. Vredenburg said.
The researchers revealed that the United States, having the greatest biodiversity of salamanders in the world, is still intact by the infection, and many of the 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.
The decline in the salamanders species could eventually affect climate change as the proliferation of some of the creatures that they used to eat could cause the greater release of carbon into the atmosphere.
Dr. Martel and his fellow colleagues first identified the fungus a year ago, and described its role in the deaths of fire salamanders in Europe. In the recent study, they investigated its origin, presence around the world and the vulnerability of different species to it.
The researchers experimentally infected 44 species of salamanders and newts (salamanders live on land, newts in the water) in the laboratory,. They wrote, “41 of them rapidly died.” It did not affect frogs and toads.
Moreover, numerous Asian species were defiant, and molecular biology studies of DNA suggested that there may be a reservoir of the fungus in Asian newts popular in the aquarium trade.
The evidence of the fungus was found in amphibians in Vietnam, Thailand and Japan, where the animals were not affected, and in the Netherlands and Belgium, where it killed numerous populations. Dr. Martel identified the shipping of live newts for the aquarium trade as the way the fungus spread.
Further investigation of the study was needed to prove that the pet trade was the culprit in the disease’s spread, since it was possible that the fungus was wind-borne, or spread by migrating birds, James Collins, at Arizona State University, who has studied the spread of fungal disease in frogs said.
Although, it was apparent that the fungus and the lack of screening in the shipping of live animals posed a major threat to salamanders in the United States and Europe, Dr. Collins said. Disease screening exists for threats to agriculture, he said, but not for animals in the pet or aquarium trade.
He further added, “International and federal agencies such as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can act, when something like Ebola emerges. We need similar efforts here too.”
The University of Maryland’s Karen R. Lips, one of the co-authors of the Science paper met Thursday with Fish and Wildlife Officials to talk about the new fungus. She said that there were now bills in Congress that could enable the Fish and Wildlife Service to screen for infected wildlife. “If Congress wanted to, they could take action,” she said.