Salamander-eating fungus found to be widespread in European private amphibian trade

Scientists warn a second amphibian chytrid panzootic could be on the horizon.

A fungus deadly to salamanders and newts has been found to be widespread in the European private amphibian trade – with the infection being transmitted between several countries and discovered in Spain for the first time.

Published today in Scientific Reports, new research from scientists at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and Ghent University in Belgium, shows Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans or ‘Bsal’ to be widespread in private amphibian collections in Western Europe. Of the eleven collections tested, seven were found to be positive for Bsal, with high rates of disease and mortality often associated. This study, funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (UK), the Animal and Plant Health Agency (UK), the Royal Veterinary College, ZSL and the Research Foundation – Flanders, follows on from the first UK report of Bsal in collections, in 2015.

A fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra)
Fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) in one monitored population have declined by 99% due to the Bsal infection

The private trade of amphibians (i.e. the trading and selling of individuals between collectors at a non-commercial scale) is causing concern for scientists at ZSL as they fear the salamander-eating fungus could soon find its way into wild populations of salamanders and newts in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, with severe consequences for amphibian conservation. 

It has already been responsible for a 99% decline in a monitored population of fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) in the Netherlands, with population declines expanding into Belgium and Germany. 

Lead author Liam Fitzpatrick from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology said: “Once the fungus is in a wild population it is likely to be impossible to stop its spread and the loss of susceptible species. We already know that Bsal can be lethal to a number of European salamander species, so understanding ways in which the fungus could be introduced to new areas is essential in our efforts to conserve wild amphibians.”

A diseased Lissotriton boscai
Diseased Lissotriton boscai – Bsal often causes amphibians to be in poor body condition and lose full control of their movements, as was the case in this diseased Bosca’s newt

Professor Andrew Cunningham from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology said: “The presence of Bsal in amphibian collections increases the risk of Bsal infection being transferred to nearby wild amphibian populations, for example, through contaminated wastewater or released or escaped animals. The critical control point here is the prevention of the fungus being introduced into amphibian collections in the first place. 

“Along with international Government regulations being implemented to control the amphibian trade, biosecurity guidance and best practice methods for sanitisation need to be disseminated throughout the private trade immediately. This will help ensure that both traded individuals are healthy, and our wild populations of amphibians are protected – before it’s too late”.

Scientists use a swab to check a Bosca's newt for infection
Scientists use a swab to check whether this Bosca's newt (Lissotriton boscai) is infected with Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans

During 2006, it was estimated that 131,000 live amphibians were imported into the UK with 98% believed to be used for the legal pet trade. International trade controls on diseases solely impacting on wildlife have historically not been instigated, however the European Union has recently announced regulations for the movement of captive salamanders and newts in an attempt to limit the introduction and spread of Bsal.

Co-author, Professor An Martel from Ghent University said: “Screening captive collections and treating Bsal positive individuals, along with engaging with collectors to improve sanitary protocols, are likely to be the most effective and feasible measures to protect both captive and wild salamanders and newts from Bsal.”

The fungus – originally from Asia, is thought to have entered Europe as part of the pet trade before spilling over into wild amphibian populations; causing what is now termed as “pathogen pollution”.  

L. D. Fitzpatrick, F. Pasmans, A. Martel. A. A. Cunningham, Epidemiological tracing of Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans identifies widespread infection. Scientific Reports

 

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