A new disease threatens our salamanders
An emerging salamander-killing pathogen continues its expansion in Europe. The fungus is now present in three European countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany) and it has a dramatic impact on salamander and newt populations. 45 NGO and scientists from all over Europe urge the EU and member states to take strong and rapid policy action.
Recently, scientist discovered a pathogenic fungus from Asia that eats the skin of salamanders and newts (aquatic salamanders). They die shortly after they get infected.
The fungus, called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal in short), killed 99.9% of the Dutch population of fire salamanders in a short period of time. Bsal-infected salamanders were ever since discovered in three other European countries: Belgium, Germany and the UK. If no measures are taken, our salamanders and newts may be extinct within 25 to 50 years.
A wide consortium of more than 45 NGO's and scientists has joined forces and wrote to the European Commission and the Belgian federal minister of environment, Marie-Christine Marghem.
Supported by the renowned standing committee of the Bern Convention (Council of Europe), we request emergency action plans, funding for research, monitoring programs and trade restrictions, especially in high risk areas, such as Belgium.
- Get to know Bsal
- Learn how you can help
- Time for action
- More extensive background file (policy dossier)
- Links and downloads
Get to know Bsal
Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) is a pathogen fungus infecting only salamanders and newts. The fungus causes the chytridiomycosis disease. The disease occurs in the form of skin ulcerations. Moreover animals may show some signs of apathy. The skin literally is eaten away. The disease is very contagious and is easily transmittable between different salamander species.
The fungus was discovered by the research group of the Ghent University. It first appeared in 2012 in a fire salamander population in the Bunderbos in the Netherlands. The disease caused a 99,9% mortality at that place!
After this several outbreaks were detected throughout the Netherlands and Belgium, not only in Fire salamanders but also in Smooth newt and Alpine newt.
In 2013, the first Belgian victims were found in Eupen. Subsequently, infections were discovered in Robertville (2014), Liège (2015) and Duffel (2015). Both in Germany and in England, salamanders in captivity were found to be infected. In Germany one infected wild salamander was identified.
The distribution of Bsal in Europe can be followed here.
Lab experiments show that up to now, only the Palmate Newt is possibly less sensitive for this disease.
An overview can be found in this article.
Salamanders in Belgium
One species of salamanders and four species of newts (aquatic salamanders) are found in Belgium: Alpine newt, Palmate newt, Smooth newt, Great crested newt and fire salamander. An overview of the distribution of the indigenous salamanders in Belgium can be found on the website www.waarnemingen.be or www.observations.be.
Salamanders are ‘old’ vertebrates. They have existed on our planet for 150 to 200 million years, readapting themselves over history to very different ecosystems. Regulating the food web, they play a key role in these ecosystems, and they also contribute to the protection of ecosystems in many ways.
Salamanders also offer economic advantages: they regulate insect populations that may cause agricultural plagues or that are able to transmit pathogens to human beings, as well as to domestic and wild animals.
The journey of Bsal
Bsal has been present in Japan at least since mid-19th century. Bsal is not lethal for Asiatic salamanders: some of them get ill, but they often do not die and they can live with the fungus for a long time.
The main pathway for the global spread of Bsal is the international trade in salamanders (Martel et al. 2014). The introduction of Bsal into mainland Europe is linked with the commercial trade of Asian salamanders (Cynops spp.) from East Asia, particularly Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan (Martel et al. 2014).
Up to now, Bsal has only been found in salamander samples from Asia, Northern Europe and England, but has not yet spreaded to North or South America.
As no structurally organized testing procedures exist, we don't know how many specimen in captivity have been infected. For example: if one of the 2 million specimens of Cynops orientalis imported into the United States over the past 10 years, was infected with Bsal and was set out in a garden pond, it would be sufficient to start an infection breakout.
Because of a lack of systematic active surveillance in the field, we don't know which populations in Europe are infected at this moment.
How can you help?
I go for walks in forests or nature reserves
I own or sell salamanders
If you own or sell salamanders, you would not like them to catch Bsal. Here are some tips:
Time for action!
Call for action from the Council of Europe
The standing committee of the Bern Convention was the first to acknowledge the importance and possible threat of Bsal. In december 2015, the permanent committee of the Council of Europe approved a recommendation on Bsal, thereby urging the contracting parties to take action.
More specific, the contracting parties are strongly recommended to develop emergency action plans, to invest in research in biology and mitigation of the disease, to set up monitoring programs and to impose trade restrictions and pre-import screenings as a preventive measure. Especially in areas of high risk such as regions with endemic populations or near disease outbreaks, the committee urges to install monitoring programs and trade restrictions.
In the US the threat is being recognized at all levels, but in Europe actions remain limited and scattered. Some examples:
The Flemish Agency for Nature and Forestry established a safety protocol. These measures for biosafety have to be taken during all subsequent field activities in different amphibian habitats in and near forest areas and ponds, whether or not the purpose of these activities concerns the fauna or flora. Taking simple disinfection measures for clothing and research material is very effective to reduce the risk of spreading the fungus.
Furthermore, no further derogations to the Flemish species decree are allowed in all ponds within a perimeter of 1 km around the pond where Bs was discovered in Duffel. All authorization holders were informed about that measure. An exception is made for monitoring activities by scientific researchers which are important for monitoring the populations and the impact of Bs.
In order to measure the impact of the infection diseases on the indigenous amphibians’ biodiversity, the Flemish Nature and Forestry Agency started a cooperation with the team of An Martel and Frank Pasmans of the Ghent University and with Natuurpunt for surveillance and risk analysis of chytridiomycosis in Flanders in 2015 (results have not been published so far).
Since 2015, the Swiss Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office established a ban on the import of all salamander species into Switzerland.
In the US, a coalition of organizations and individuals submitted letters to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), requesting that the agency take emergency action to prevent the spread of Bsal into the US. Consequently, since 2016 more than 200 salamander and newt species were banned from import under the Lacey Act.
A summary of all US actions can be found in the publication of Gray et al.
This campaign is an initiative from the following NGO’s and scientists.
Natuurpunt (Belgium), Natagora (Belgium), Ravon (Holland), Birdlife Europe (All Europe), Chelonia international (All Europe), European Environmental Bureau (All Europa), SEH Societas Europaea Herpetologica (All Europe), WWF Europe (All Europe), Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (UK), Asociación Herpetológica Española (Spain), British Herpetological Society (UK), Bufo (France), Chelonia Romania (Romania), Froglife (UK), KARCH (Switzerland), Montenegrin Ecologists Society (Montenegro), Nabu (Germany), Natur&ëmwelt (Luxembourg), Österreichische Gesellschaft für Herpetologie (Austria), People's Trust for Endangered Species (UK), Põhjakonn (Estonia), Sicona (Luxembourg), Societas Herpetologica Italica (Italia), Societas Herpetologica Slovenica (Slovénia), Société Herpétologique de France (France), The Herpetological Society of Ireland (Ireland), WWF Belgium (Belgium), Zoological Society of London / Institute of Zoology (UK), Amphibian Survival Alliance (World).
Prof. An Martel, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Ghent University (Belgium) - Prof. Frank Pasmans, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Ghent University (Belgium) - Dr. Jaime Bosch, Senior Research Scientist, Cientifico titular, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, CSIC, Madrid (Spain) - Prof. Andrew Cunningham, Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London (UK) - Dr. Mathieu Denoël, Behavioural Biology Unit, University of Liege (Belgium) - Prof. Matthew Fisher, Dpt Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Imperial College School of Public Health (UK) - Prof. Trent Garner, Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London (UK) - PD Dr. Stefan Lötters, Associate Professor, Biogeography Department, Faculty of Geography/Geosciences, Trier University (Germany) - Dr. Adeline Loyau, Department of System Ecotoxicology & Department of Conservation Biology, Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research-UFZ (Germany) - Claude Miaud, Directeur d’Etude EPHE, CEFE/CNRS (France) - Prof. Ken Norris, Director of Science, Institute of Zoology (UK) - Dr. Edoardo Razzetti, University of Pavia (Italy) - A. prof. Sebastiano Salvidio, DISTAV, Università degli Studi di Genova (Italy) - Ph. D. Dirk Schmeller, Department of Conservation Biology, Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research-UFZ (Germany) - Dr. Benedikt Schmidt, KARCH (Switzerland) - Annemarieke Spitzen, RAVON (The Netherlands) - Prof. Dr. Miguel Vences, Division of Evolutionary Biology, Zoological Institute (Germany)