By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 11/12/2015

A fungal pathogen with the potential to devastate salamander populations has yet to arrive in North America, but scientists are ready and waiting should it appear.

New Zealand researchers are among a group calling for global action against the emerging disease before it spreads.

Scientists in Europe discovered the fungal pathogen, Salamander chytrid disease – Batrachocytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), a year ago and attributed it to recent die-offs of salamanders in Europe. The cause for concern stems from the similarity to a fungal pathogen that has devastated populations of frogs in the neotropics, Australia and the western United States.

The Amphibian Survival Alliance published collaborative work on Friday in PLOS Pathogens detailing the action taken to prevent the spread of Bsal in North America and the plans to respond if it does make it to the US, Canada or Mexico.

Those plans include a national task team to create a strategic plan, workshops, a website and a rapid response plan for wild and captive salamander.

University of Otago’s Professor Phil Bishop, and Amphibian Survival Alliance chief scientist, said about half of the world’s 682 species of salamander were found only in North America.

“In some cases, although they may be cryptic and difficult to find, they make up a significant proportion of the biomass in forests.”

“In particular, Mexico and the Appalachian Mountains are collectively home to more than 100 species of lungless salamanders, which could be wiped out by this emerging disease.”

A Bsal infection causes ulcerations which are visible as black spots on salamanders. It was first identified in fire salamanders in the Netherlands where large-scale mortalities were observed in a nature reserve.

The United States Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Priya Nanjappa said “what we really need is to keep Bsal out of North America as long as possible, allowing us time to better understand this pathogen and how to address it”.

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Featured image: A fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) covered with Bsal ulcerations – visible as black spots. Frank Pasmans.