Environment & Science

Researchers hustle to prevent invasive fungus from threatening US salamanders

UCLA professor H. Bradley Shaffer holds a Barred Tiger Salamander, nicknamed
UCLA professor H. Bradley Shaffer holds a Barred Tiger Salamander, nicknamed "Jimmy." Shaffer has had a salamander colony for 30 years. "It's an investment, but we learn an awful lot," Shaffer said.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Salamander populations in California and the rest of the country have been declining because of pollution and habitat loss. Now, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey worry they could be at risk from a deadly fungus from overseas.

It's called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal for short.

In a statement, Anne Kinsinger, Associate Director of Ecosystems for the USGS, said it represents "one of the most significant disease threats to U.S. wildlife since the emergence of white-nose syndrome, which has devastated hibernating bat populations in the eastern U.S."

Salamanders are an important part of the food chain for birds, snakes and other critters. But like other amphibians, they’re vulnerable to tainted water and disappearing habitat, both on land and in water.

Bsal could further diminish the species says USGS researcher Katie Richgels. Scientists are still figuring out how it works, but she says it is believed to attack the animals skin and restrict their breathing.

"Basically what ends up happening it causes them to slowly starve and get disoriented," she explained.

In some cases, it kills within two weeks of infection. Rechgels added that the spores from Bsal can linger in ponds, possibly for years, making it a longterm threat once it establishes itself in an ecosystem.

It’s thought to have come from Asia and is already established in Europe but hasn't reached the U.S. yet.

To keep it that way, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has created an interim rule banning the importation and interstate transport of certain salamander species.

In addition, researchers are setting up monitors in California and around the country to keep tabs on salamander populations incase Bsal shows up.