A deadly fungus plaguing the fire salamander, Europe’s largest and most well-known salamander species, is responsible for wiping out an entire population in Belgium.
Originally, researchers were hopeful that the salamander would be able to develop immunity to the fungus, but studies have shown that this is not the case. The pathogen, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), is a chytrid fungus that thrives in damp or wet environments and consumes dead organic material.
Bsal infects salamanders and causes lesions, apathy, loss of appetite and eventually death. A related fungus, B. dendrobatidis (Bd), infected amphibians in the Americas, Australia, Spain and Portugal in the last few decades and was identified as a significant factor in the extinction of an estimated 200 species of frogs and toads.
Fire salamanders first started dying of Bsal in a nature reserve in the Netherlands in 2013 where the population plummeted 99.9%. The fungus spread to Belgium and Germany and is believed to have been introduced by salamanders or newts imported from Asia as pets.
When Bsal appeared in Belgium, veterinarian An Martel of Ghent University in Merelbeke, Belgium, and her team began studying the fungus in depth. Scientists already knew that Bsal creates spores with a flagellum used to propel it toward amphibians, and it is able to stay alive for several days before being eaten by protozoa.
However, Martel and her colleagues revealed that Bsal makes another type of spore that is much more resilient and can survive for up to two months in a pond. The researchers also found that the spores can survive in soil for two days after an infected salamander walked on it, making it possible for the spores to stick to goose feet and be transported further.
Two species that share a habitat with the salamander, midwife toads and alpine newts, have shown to be likely carriers of the disease and can infect fire salamanders, making their environments even more dangerous.
The implications of this disease are that it could spread to other countries and without a viable treatment that would be effective in the wild, many are concerned that the fungus could cause untold damage. As a precaution, the United States banned the import of 201 species of salamanders and are considering banning the toad and newt as well.
Top photo by William Warby, CC BY 2.0
Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.