The demise of the fire salamander and the European response

(20-04-2017) A killer fungus threatens European salamanders with extinction and there are currently very few options to prevent this from happening, scientists have warned. Time for Europe to take action.

In a paper, published today in the journal Nature, researchers paint a grim picture of the recently discovered fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans that is causing mortality in salamander populations in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Results of a study led by Ghent University show that the infection is likely here to stay and has the potential to drive European salamander species to extinction.

A perfect storm

“The fungus presents as “a perfect storm”. Highly susceptible salamanders such as the emblematic fire salamander invariably die after exposure to even tiny amounts of the fungus and are incapable of developing any resistance. These highly susceptible salamanders are permanently exposed to the fungus that persists as resistant spores in the environment, but also in less susceptible salamander and frog species, which serve as a reservoir. The result is that within six months’ time, infected fire salamander populations are reduced by more than 90% and are finally extirpated.” said Professor An Martel (UGent).

With 18 of the 34 species considered threatened, salamander diversity in Europe is already at risk, even without the presence of infectious diseases. Several of these species are confined to small ranges. Since the deadly fungus is expanding its range in Europe, its introduction in these vulnerable salamander populations could result in their extinction. The question is how this disease can be halted.

First author Gwij Stegen (UGent) said: “The disease characteristics limit options for efficient disease mitigation. Classical measures to control animal diseases such as vaccination and repopulation will not be successful and eradication of the fungus from the ecosystem is unlikely, which calls for urgent actions to limit loss of biodiversity across Europe.”

The research project was led by Ghent University and has been a collaborative effort with Natagora, Vrije Universiteit Brussels and Suisse institutes (KARCH, University of Zurich and Suisse Ornithological Institute). The study was funded (among others) by the Special Research Fund of Ghent University, the Research Foundation – Flanders.

Pan European abatement plan

Because the researchers have unravelled the disease process at an early stage, this opens perspectives for the design of control measures. The European Parliament has responded to this call for action by funding a European consortium with the purpose to quickly develop a pan European abatement plan.

European Commissioner for the Environment, Karmenu Vella said: “Several European salamander and newt species protected by the EU Habitats Directive are under threat. Research carried out by Ghent University has helped to identify the spread of the disease and  elaborate concepts for the design of control measure. Thanks to funding support from the European Commission and the European Parliament these  approaches are now being developed ".  

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