Published On: Fri, May 15th, 2015

New petition aims to block importation of salamanders, stop spread of disease

The Center for Biological Diversity and Save the Frogs filed a formal petition to the Interior secretary seeking an emergency moratorium on the import of salamanders for the pet trade to prevent introduction of the deadly fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) into the United States.

Bsal is a highly virulent pathogen from Asia spreading through the salamander pet trade and killing wild salamanders; it has already nearly wiped out wild fire salamanders in the Netherlands and Belgium. A real risk exists that it could be spread to the United States.

“The introduction of devastating animal diseases — like the pathogens that have wiped out millions of bats in the eastern United States and frog populations across the country — has become all too common,” said Jenny Loda, a biologist and attorney with the Center dedicated to protecting rare amphibians and reptiles. “Every new shipment of salamanders into the U.S. presents the threat of introducing this deadly disease. We simply can’t take the risk.”

Infected individuals could enter the United States through commercial trade in salamanders, mostly imported as pets. Two million live salamanders have been imported into the United States over the past 10 years; 70 percent of these salamanders (1.4 million) were Chinese and Japanese newts within the Cynops genus, a group of amphibians expected to act as carriers of the disease.

photo Brandon Jones, Repticon 2014

photo Brandon Jones, Repticon 2014

Six months ago a published study revealed that Bsal is lethal to salamanders in the United States, and scientists and conservation groups called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take swift action to suspend salamander imports to prevent the spread of this disease. Yet no action has been taken to regulate the salamander trade. The recent discovery of Bsal infections in three species of European salamanders imported to the U.K. further illustrates the urgency of the need for immediate action.

Bsal is a relative of the better-known killer chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), one of the major drivers of amphibian declines and extinctions throughout the world. Bd has contributed to declines of numerous species in the United States and is a primary factor in the rapid decline of mountain yellow-legged frog populations,” said Kerry Kriger, Executive Director of Save the Frogs. “If Bsal is allowed to enter the U.S. and spread the way that Bd has, we expect to see the same kind of devastation.”

Bsal is especially lethal to newts, including the eastern newt, a widespread species found across 33 states. The disease also poses a severe threat to rare populations of salamanders, especially given that one-third of the nation’s salamanders are already at risk of extinction from threats like habitat loss and climate change. Infections with Bsal could extirpate remaining populations of the striped newt, a rare species that has been a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection since 2011.

“We’re very fortunate, here in the United States, to have more kinds of salamanders than just about anywhere else in the world,” said Loda. “These creatures are a national treasure — and one that’ll be at high risk unless the Service acts now to ensure this pathogen doesn’t reach our shores.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 825,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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