Scientists have warned a deadly salamander fungus first identified in 2013 could wipe out the entire native North American population if urgent action is not taken.
These actions include immediately halting salamander importation to keep the Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) fungus from spreading into high-risk regions such as Sierra Nevada and the central highlands of Mexico San Francisco State University reported.
The researchers believe the fungus originated in China, and was spread to the Americas through pet trade. They have requested that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service place an immediate ban on live salamander imports to the U.S until a better plan is in action to prevent the transmission of the infection.
"This is an imminent threat, and a place where policy could have a very positive effect," said San Francisco State University biologist Vance Vredenburg. "We actually have a decent chance of preventing a major catastrophe."
The dangerous fungal infections is particularly concerning because salamanders are important predators of insects and also a major link in the food chain. The fungus made its way to Europe through the pet trade, causing a 96 percent fatality rate among salamanders it infected; it was also found to be fatal to American salamanders in a lab setting.
The blue-tailed fire-bellied newt (Cynops cyanurus), the Japanese fire-bellied newt (Cynops pyrrhogaster) and the Tam Dao or Vietnamese salamander (Paramesotriton deloustali) are believed to be the main carriers of Bsal and are also some of the most commonly traded species.
"We've made specific predictions, on the ground, of where North American species are most vulnerable to Bsal," Vredenburg said. "And the places that have the highest amount of trade in these salamanders happen to be in those high-risk areas."
To determine high-risk areas of infection in North America, a team of researchers mapped out areas where the fungus could thrive and looked at which salamander species lived in these regions. They also pinpointed U.S. ports of entry for salamander trade between 2010 and 2014.
The Bsal fungus is the "most devastating infectious wildlife disease ever recorded," and has ravaged over 200 species across the globe.
"I have seen the effects of Bd on frogs, to the point where I've seen tens of thousands of animals die in the wild in pristine areas, here in California, right in front of my eyes," Vredenburg said. "It is just an unbelievable sight to see all these dead animals."
The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Science.