Saving US Salamanders: USGS and FWS aim to Analyze Salamanders across North America

What is impacting salamander population in the United States? Biologists and conservationists in the United States are under pressure to protect the amphibians and to find out if a fungus from outside the US is affecting the local salamander population.

United States Geological Survey (USGS) biologists say they are looking for salamanders across North America. Recently, the country’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that importation and transfer of salamanders will not take place, even within states. The decision was taken amid fear of the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal). According to biologists, it could be deadly for many worldwide amphibians.

Bsal cannot be ignored as salamanders play an important role in the food chain. They not only help in insect control, but also act as nourishment for larger creatures. Biologists believe decline in the population of salamanders could affect food chain and make climate change even worse. In just few years, Bsal may kill every single salamander in an area where it spreads.

In a statement regarding the ban by FWS, Dan Ashe, director of the federal agency, admitted that the Bsal fungus could be disastrous if not controlled now. The director also said that FWS officials are taking necessary steps to preserve country’s salamanders for future generations.

Now, the FWS has joined hands with the USGS to make sure that steps that the agencies are taking to protect the amphibians are working. They have planned to hunt for about 10,000 salamanders across North America.

“We have the highest biodiversity of salamanders in the world. We were concerned that once the fungus reaches the United States – if it was introduced into wild populations – it could become established and spread and potentially wipe out important species of salamanders”, said David Hoskins, assistant FWS Fish and Aquatic Conservation director.

According to a story published on the topic by Tech Times, “Wildlife officials warn pet owners about the spread of a fungal disease that could infect and kill newts and salamanders. The illness has been known to wipe out entire populations of wild animals wherever it strikes.”

The illness is known as the salamander chytrid disease. It occurs when the fungus B.sal is able to penetrate the skin of newts or salamanders, causing them to develop lesions that resemble warts. If left untreated, the disease will begin to affect the animal’s eating and cause it to become sluggish. The creature will then lose control of its own body movements until it eventually dies.

Natacha Hogan, an expert on amphibians from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, said that the disease originated from Asia but managed to spread to areas in Europe and the United Kingdom. Hogan believes the trade of wild salamanders as pets may have played a key role in the spread of the disease. She said millions of the creatures have been imported in order to serve as pets for children.

“Earlier this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) embargoed the importation and interstate transfer of 201 salamander species in an effort to halt the spread of the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), which has proven lethal to amphibians around the globe. While no reports of Bsal have yet occurred in North America, its deadliness has officials on the defensive against what they fear could be the biggest fungal threat since the ongoing white-nose syndrome plight threatening US bats,” according to a news report published by CS Monitor.

Salamanders may frequently go unnoticed in nature, but their ecological importance makes the push against Bsal a significant conservation work. Their place in the food chain allows for insect control as well as reliable nourishment for larger animals, and a decline in salamander abundance could even have major effects on soil quality and climate change. And as Europe has already found, the spread of Bsal can wipe out amphibian populations in a matter of years, making the national survey an urgent effort.

“The Bsal fungus has the ability to devastate our native salamander populations, and we are doing everything in our power to protect and preserve these essential amphibians for future generations,” FWS director Dan Ashe said in a January release regarding the service’s ban.

A report published in NY Times said, “Why one would want to hunt newts is a valid question. But for Evan Grant, who was stalking the banks of Warren Pond this month, scanning the water through polarized sunglasses, the answer is that many species of salamander in the United States, including the newts he was seeking, may be on the brink of a deadly fungal assault, much like one that has devastated some frog and toad populations worldwide.”

In 2013, scientists discovered that a fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, commonly known as Bsal, was attacking salamanders in Europe. Researchers later determined that species in the United States were vulnerable to the infection. And earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service temporarily banned the import of 201 species of salamanders that pose a danger of carrying the fungus into the United States.

They don’t simply grow from egg to adult the way mammals or reptiles do. They have several stages, from egg to larva to adult, and in any given species, they may skip a stage, change whether they live in water or on land, grow lungs or stick with gills. Some absorb oxygen through their skin, and skip both lungs and gills. Newts, in particular, are like ecological utility infielders, switching habitats and physiology depending on what is needed for the game of staying alive.

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