We Love Salamanders, But Their Invasion Must Be Stopped

A healthy fire salamander from a captive-bred collection at a British zoo. Other specimens were infected with a fungus that has already devastated salamanders in continental Europe and could spread to North America.Credit Pria N. Ghosh

A healthy fire salamander from a captive-bred collection at a British zoo. Other specimens were infected with a fungus that has already devastated salamanders in continental Europe and could spread to North America.Credit Pria N. Ghosh

Our attention to stories reported in various media outlets about invasive species takes many forms, but invariably they are alarming, this one being no exception:

Pressure Builds for Swift U.S. Action Against Spreading Salamander Threat

There are signs of hope for American salamanders in the face of a potential biological catastrophe — a fungus that could be carried here through the global trade in exotic pets. Federal wildlife officials have signaled a crackdown may be coming on imports of amphibians.

Here’s the sequence of events.

Last year, biologists identified a virulent imported fungusBatrachochytrium salamandrivorans, as the cause of a steep drop in salamander populations in continental Europe. Herpetologists quickly began pressing United States agencies and officials (Dot Earth, Op-Ed article) to clamp down on the global exotic pet trade to cut the chances of the disease reaching the United States — which has the most diverse salamander population in the world.

In March, experts renewed their calls for action, frustrated with the lack of acknowledgement by federal wildlife agencies that this was an urgent issue.

Then in late April, British biologists reported finding the fungus for the first time in Britain, in a captive salamander population at a zoo. (The short note reporting the disease discovery in Veterinary Record on May 2 is appended below.)

Now, the Center for Biological Diversity, essentially a nonprofit law firm for endangered species, along with the group Save the Frogs, has formally petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to enact “an emergency moratorium on imports of all live salamanders into the United States to prevent the introduction of this disease while the Service sets up longer-term regulatory measures.”

The tool for such actions is the Lacey Act, which was recently used to limit trade in various constricting snakes and has been used aggressively against guitar manufacturers.

Despite mounting evidence that such trade could introduce deadly fungal infections (another has devastated frogs in many parts of the world), the groups said: 

No species of amphibian is currently regulated as injurious under the Lacey Act. No amphibian shipments are quarantined by any Federal agency upon entry and many shipments are neither visually inspected nor fully identified to the species level when they arrive in the United States.

After the news broke about the disease reaching Britain, I reached out to the Fish and Wildlife Service for an update on planned actions. (I’ve been swamped with other work so this is the first time I’ve posted the agency’s response even though it was received on April 30.)

“The threat to global salamander populations from a new fungal strain is very real and of great concern to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Laury Marshall Parramore, a spokeswoman for the wildlife agency, wrote in an email. “We’re committed to expediting an injurious determination.” (Her full statement is below.)

Peter Jenkins, the president of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention, called that statement encouraging and important, saying, “It is the first time we’ve seen put in writing that they are ‘committed to expediting an injurious determination.’”

Jenny Loda, the Center for Biological Diversity staff attorney for reptiles and amphibians, told me yesterday that the petition has been filed to make sure the pressure stays on.

The trade in salamanders is extensive and loosely governed, at best. European fire salamanders, for instance, can easily be found for sale online in both the United States and Great Britain by pet dealers (the links got to randomly searched examples) who voluntarily list their specimens as captive bred.

But when you see how much trade there is, it’s easy to see how diseased salamanders might get into the mix. A Guardian article describes the scope of the trade, and the threat it poses:

Asian salamanders and newts that could be harboring the fungus are traded in large numbers around the world.

Between 2001 and 2009, more than 2.3 million Chinese fire belly newts were imported into the U.S. alone.

Professor Matthew Fisher, a member of the team from Imperial College London, said: “This study has shown the threat of importing exotic species without appropriate screening for infectious diseases.

B. salamandrivorans poses an extreme risk to European amphibian biodiversity and nations need to urgently consider appropriate biosecurity measures to stop the further spread of this, and other similar, emerging pathogens.”

Let’s hope the Obama administration recognizes the urgency of the situation, given how important salamanders are to North American woodland ecosystems — but also given how wonderful it is to walk in the woods in spring and marvel at red efts in the leaf litter…

Read the whole post here.

One thought on “We Love Salamanders, But Their Invasion Must Be Stopped

  1. Pingback: The Dilution Effect | Raxa Collective

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