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Salamanders and Fatal Fungus: Must Regulate To Save, Say Researchers

Jul 31, 2015 02:10 PM EDT
A serious pathogen discovered in 2013 could wildly skew or eliminate salamanders in North America if pet salamanders bring it into the continent, likely from Asia, say researchers. (Photo : wikipedia commons )

If you see a salamander in a forest, it's not only a sighting of a strangely rubbery, bug-eyed, clamber-fingered little creature. When they are in high abundance, it's an indication that the forest is healthy, notes the U.S. Forest Service on its website

Not only that, but salamanders have some serious personality range, notes biologist Vance Vredenburg of San Francisco State, who co-founded AmphibiaWeb, a database that receives 7.3 million queries a year. He and several other key biologists recently published an urgent report in the journal Science. He says that the web-footed amphibians range from species that live 35 feet up in trees to some that roll into balls and throw themselves off cliffs to elude predators.

However, they are in grave danger of a fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal)--which was identified in 2013 after it brought the Netherlands' population of fire salamanders to the brink of extinction. In their report, scientists with San Francisco State University, University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles urge U.S. officials to halt salamander pet importation, a release noted. 

Currently, 170 types of native salamanders live in the United States, with about half the world's known salamander species living in North America, according to AmphibiaWeb. 

Salamander declines and extinctions if the Bsal fungus arrives may be greatest in the southeastern United States, especially the southern end of the Appalachians and nearby mountains, the Pacific Northwest and Sierra Nevada, and Mexico's central highlands. They also include the commonly seen California slender salamander, say the researchers in the release.

Because salamanders are popular worldwide as pets and sold across borders, these scientists fear that fungus could spread from its likely origin in Asia, according to the release. The ban has been supported by prominent scientists for a while.

"This is an imminent threat, and a place where policy could have a very positive effect," said Vredenburg in the release. "We actually have a decent chance of preventing a major catastrophe."

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