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Salamanders Are Pretty Awesome…But They may Be in big Trouble

By Doug Parsons, North America Policy Director, Society for Conservation Biology

On a recent visit with my two young sons to the National Zoo here in Washington, D.C., I pleaded with them to make a quick detour to look at the pandas. My 11-year-old scoffed, and made a beeline for the Blink and you Miss It exhibit for the Japanese giant salamanders. Slimy, small and cold-blooded as they are, salamanders don’t always evoke the same “warm and fuzzy” response from many zoo-goers as the larger and more charismatic mammal species.

I asked my son why he was so fascinated by these odd little creatures. Some of his responses included “They eat bugs,” “they look so cool!” and my favorite: “I don’t know, they’re just awesome!” Finally, he said something that I think gets to the heart of what makes these small, elusive creatures so special: “I like that I can find them outside of the zoo.” My son has spent many hours lifting up logs and rocks looking for salamanders, even around our neighborhood. They are uniquely accessible for many people in North America, if you only know where to look. Nothing inspires a lifelong love of wildlife like the childhood discovery of something exotic in your own backyard.

 

Ryan Means releases bucket full of striped newts into Pond.
Ryan Means releases bucket full of striped newts into Pond. Photo by Ryan Means.

 

Year of the Salamander

Although it did not get the media coverage it deserved, 2014 was designated the “Year of the Salamander.” These amazing little guys don’t receive nearly enough recognition for their fascinating characteristics and the important role they play in ecosystems. The more than 500 species come in a stunning array of jewel-bright colors and patterns. They can be as small as a fingernail or larger than a Labrador retriever. Some have gills, some have frills, and some have no lungs at all but breathe exclusively through their skin. Many of the rarest and most unusual species are found right here in the eastern United States. From the (awesomely named) Black Warrior Waterdog to the Hellbender, the diversity and richness of salamander species here is truly amazing. If you’re a salamander enthusiast, you are very fortunate to be living in the United States.

 

Pseudotriton
Pseudotriton. Photo by Karen Lips.

 

Salamanders are also in many ways the unsung heroes of the ecosystems where they are found. They are voracious consumers of both terrestrial and aquatic insects, as well as an important prey source for many species higher up the food chain. This means they both promote biodiversity and enhance ecosystem integrity. They are important for scientific research and education, for their cultural and regional significance, and simply for their own intrinsic value. For all these reasons and more, it is extremely worrisome that North America’s treasure trove of salamander biodiversity may be facing a grave new threat.

Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), is a fungus originating in Asia that has recently emerged in salamander populations in Holland and Belgium, most likely carried in via the pet trade. The consequences have been devastating. In the two European populations where Bsal took hold, it ran through them like wildfire, causing a 96 percent die-off in an extremely short period. Scientists are fairly certain that Bsal has not yet reached the United States, but worry that should it arrive here it could similarly decimate native salamander populations. Though most U.S. species have not yet been tested, those that have been are all shown to be susceptible to it. With at least 190 native species–more than any other country–the U.S. is a salamander biodiversity hotspot. The arrival of Bsal in the southeastern United States is of particular concern, as that region is the global epicenter of salamander diversity.

Fortunately Bsal and the serious risk it poses to salamanders has recently received heightened attention in the scientific and lay literature. On October 30, 2014, the journal Science published a key study called “Recent introduction of a chytrid fungus endangers Western Palearctic salamanders,” and an “In Depth” feature entitled “The coming salamander plague”. The New York Times set forth the policy context in an October 31 article entitled, “Infection That Devastates Amphibians, Already in Europe, Could Spread to U.S.” In an attempt to avert a real ecological crisis, scientists have been very proactive in talking to the media and reaching out to policy makers in order to encourage measures to prevent the entry of Bsal into the U.S.

 

Chinese fire-bellied salamander. Photograph by Frank Pasmans.
Chinese fire-bellied salamander. Photograph by Frank Pasmans.

 

Averting Catastrophe

Once an invasive species or pathogen has made it across our borders, it can often spread so quickly that there is very little that anyone can do to eliminate the threat. The next time you get bit by a fire ant, you’ll know first-hand just how true this is. It is rare for the scientific community to get clear advance notice of an impending ecological threat before it begins to take hold. Fortunately, that is exactly the case with Bsal. We have a precious window of opportunity to take concrete actions that could effectively avert a catastrophe for North American salamanders and their habitats.

There are many proactive steps that government and those in the pet trade can take to help minimize the risk that Bsal will make it to North America. Probably the single most effective step would be for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop criteria to certify amphibians entering the U.S. through the pet trade as free of Bsal and other deadly salamander pathogens or parasites, and suspend all imports of any salamander or newt not certified by the Service as fulfilling those criteria.

As part of the study mentioned earlier, salamanders entering the UK from Asia were tested for Bsal and at least a few were found to be positive. This shows that monitoring imports and exports is a critical strategy. Certifications could be based on verified clean sources, reliable testing, treatment, quarantine, and/or other measures; the precise approach would need to be designed and reviewed by experts. The importers themselves have a big role to play in self-monitoring their stock and educating buyers about keeping an eye out for signs of Bsal in their slimy little friends.

There is also much work for U.S. scientists and conservationists to do. Big questions remain unanswered about how severely Bsal will impact the numerous different species that are found here, or how quickly it will spread. There is also an enormous need for monitoring of wild salamander populations. If Bsal does end up in the U.S., early detection will be crucial.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the pressure is on to find a cure or at least a treatment for infected salamanders. This will not only help us prepare for the worst in the U.S., but may help conservationists in Europe and around the globe stem the devastating losses that Bsal is currently inflicting. If we want to protect these amazing critters, the challenges are great but so are the opportunities. Let’s take the necessary steps to keep salamanders healthy and available to find outside zoos for future generations.

Kat Diersen, Society for Conservation Biology, contributed to this post.

 

Releasing a striped newt into a pond.
Releasing a striped newt into a pond.  Photo by Ryan Means.

 

Doug ParsonsDoug Parsons joined Society for Conservation Biology in early June, 2014 as the North American Policy Director. Doug’s background is in policy development and education. Prior to joining the SCB team, Doug was the Climate Change Liaison with the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program. Doug has a Master’s Degree in Ecology from the University of Georgia. He has worked on climate change issues for the past decade in Florida and in Queensland, Australia.

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