Deadly skin-eating fungus is wiping out fire salamanders

Jonathan Marker | Science Recorder | September 03, 2013

Deadly skin-eating fungus is wiping out fire salamanders

The fire salamander has distinctive yellow and black skin patterns.

An international team of scientists has identified a new and deadly species of fungus that has ravaged fire salamander populations in forests of the Netherlands since 2010.  The fungus, called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, destroys the amphibians’ skin and is responsible for pushing the fire salamander to the brink of regional extinction.

The fire salamander is easily recognizable, as it has distinctive yellow and black skin patterns, but the current population has dwindled to approximately 10 – less than 4 percent of its original level – and the cause of the die-off puzzled scientists until the recent discovery.

The scientists involved in the study hail from Ghent University, Imperial College London, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and the Dutch conservation group Ravon.  Their findings appear in a recent edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, under the title “Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans sp. nov. causes lethal chytridiomycosis in amphibians.”

A related species to the fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, is responsible for obliterating over 200 species of amphibians worldwide.  The fungus causes the disease chytridiomycosis, which has been identified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as the “single most devastating infectious disease in vertebrate animals.”

“In several regions, including northern Europe, amphibians appeared to be able to co-exist with Bd,” said the study’s lead author, Professor An Martel of the University of Ghent.  “It is therefore extremely worrying that a new fungus has emerged that causes mass mortalities in regions where amphibian populations were previously healthy.”

“It is a complete mystery why we are seeing this outbreak now, and one explanation is that the new salamander-killing fungus has invaded the Netherlands from elsewhere in the world,” said study co-author Professor Matthew Fisher of Imperial College London.  “We need to know if this is the case, why it is so virulent, and what its impact on amphibian communities will be on a local and global scale. Our experience with Bd has shown that fungal diseases can spread between amphibian populations across the world very quickly. We need to act urgently to determine what populations are in danger and how best to protect them.”

The fungus may spread by direct or possibly indirect contact between salamanders.  It ravages the amphibian’s skin, and then completely destroys it over time.  To guard the surviving population from the ravages of this new fungus, the international team of scientists brought the salamanders into captivity.  In addition, the scientists produced a diagnostic tool that provides rapid identification of the fungus.  Thus far, scientists do not believe that the fungus has spread beyond the Netherlands.

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