An ocean away, a threat to American salamanders looms: a newly-discovered disease called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans. It's already hit European salamanders, spread by Asian amphibians who carry the fungal pathogen but are resistant to its ill effects. Salamanders further west, on the other hand, have up to a 96 percent mortality rate.
Biologists Karen Lips and Joseph Mendelson III took to the New York Times on Friday, urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent the importation of salamander species.
This fungus has not arrived in the United States yet, so far as we know. But if it does, it is likely to spread across the country, as it appears to be doing in Europe, with catastrophic consequences. The continental United States has more species of salamanders than any other place on earth.
The threat of this new fungus, however, isn't the only pressing issue facing American amphibians. To say the last 30 years have not been kind to these animals would be an understatement; Lips and Mendelson, comparing Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans to what has come before, use phrases like "apocalyptic" and "mass die-offs."
A 2013 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that toads, frogs and salamanders are disappearing from U.S. ecosystems by 3.7 percent per year. If the amphibian vanishing act continues at such a speed, half of amphibian habitats will be emptied over the next 20 years. The culprit, wrote John Platt at Scientific American, is likely a mix of "habitat loss, climate change, pollution, invasive species and the deadly chytrid fungus."
The chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, is a close relative of the disease that has Lips and Mendelson concerned; there are early reports of therapies to treat chytrid, but the disease has already been found parasitizing more than 90 species. But curbing Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, at least before it enters the U.S., would require closing local and international borders to the salamander trade - which may be the only way to keep American salamanders safe, the biologists say.