Government researchers seek to save North American salamanders

Government researchers seek to save North American salamandersThere’s a reason why biologist Evan Grant and other government researchers are “stalking” salamanders. And that reason, in brief, is to save the Eastern red-spotted newt from a type of fungus. These moves come after several reports emerged of salamander populations in Europe falling victim to the deadly fungus.

According to Grant, the Eastern red-spotted newt is being threatened by the presence of fungus in its natural habitat, with that specific fungus having been responsible for gutting frog and toad populations in various parts of the globe. The BSAL fungus, known scientifically as Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, had also attacked European salamanders in 2013, and after that, researchers discovered that the fungus was also threatening species in the U.S.

To that end, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced earlier in 2016 an embargo on 201 salamander species, due to the risk of bringing the fungus over to America. The government agency is pushing to make it a permanent ban, and with a public comment period for this move having just expired, the ball is in their court as they prepare to make a final decision in the near future.

“We have the highest biodiversity of salamanders in the world,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director for fish and aquatic conservation David Hoskins. “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.”

Meanwhile, Grant has been doing his part as a member of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative, working overtime to catch red–spotted newts he finds in the East Coast. He has been checking the salamanders for infections, and reporting back to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, sending back samples to that agency. So far, neither he nor his fellow USGS colleagues have found any sign of BSAL in any of the one thousand or so salamanders they have sampled, but the search is still pushing forward and far from being complete.

Salamanders are, of course, much smaller than most other endangered or threatened species such as tigers and bears. But hard as they are to spot, as Grant and other USGS researchers can attest to, they play a key role in our environment. They control insect populations in damp forests and smaller bodies of water, helping provide food for other animals. So any harm to the salamander would, in turn, affect other species as well. That’s something more evident in Europe, where the BSAL fungus has done serious harm to salamander populations.

“Very few animals are left,” lamented Belgian professor An Martel, who had previously found BSAL on salamanders in the Netherlands. “It has had a huge impact. The populations where the fungus is present are almost gone. We (cannot) find any salamanders anymore.”