A ‘perfect storm’ of newly described characteristics, reported in Nature this week, is enabling one particular fungus to decimate European salamander populations. As the fungus continues to spread, the authors call for a Europe-wide early warning system to monitor its movements, and an emergency action plan that prioritizes conservation of acutely endangered newts and salamanders ex situ (outside their natural habitats).
The emergence in Europe of the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, which disproportionately infects and kills sexually mature adult salamanders, has led to marked declines in salamander populations in recent years. An Martel and colleagues studied the rapid and sustained collapse of a population of Belgian fire salamanders during a two-year period after infection, and identified several factors associated with the decline. As well as producing motile spores, like its sister species B. dendrobatidis, this fungus also produces hardy, non-motile spores. It remains virulent not only in water and soil, but also in certain other amphibian species that then act as reservoirs for the disease. In addition, surviving salamanders are unable to develop resistance to the fungus.
The research provides a unique case study with regards to disease-driven loss of biodiversity, and shows how research into the complex, fundamental mechanisms driving the extinction process can be used to inform science-based policy decisions on biodiversity loss.