Amphibian populations around the world have significantly declined and are facing an extinction crisis. One culprit is Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, a fungus that has caused amphibian die-offs by the thousands in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Identified in 1998, the Bd fungal infection has been called “the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates” for its devastating effect on biodiversity, wiping out more than 200 amphibian species around the world.
If that news isn’t bad enough, Bd’s killer cousin has now entered the scene, destroying masses of salamanders in Europe since 2010. The new fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), identified in 2013, wiped out 96% of Dutch fire salamanders and made its way to Belgium and Britain. This has kept North American amphibian biologists on edge, as some species of salamanders and newts here are extremely susceptible to the fungus. One lesson from the swift devastation wrought by fungal outbreaks in Europe is that such an invasion is a containment nightmare. Although no cases of Bsal have yet been spotted in North America, experts believe it is just a matter of time. According to a working group led by the US Geological Society’s (USGS) Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative, “The introduction of Bsal into the United States is highly probable, if not inevitable.”
The US claims the richest biodiversity of salamanders in the world, with close to 200 of the approximately 700 species identified thus far. Their decline could have severe consequences on ecosystems, the food web, and nutrient cycling. Salamanders keep the mosquito population in check and even play a role in the carbon cycle: By eating insects that feed on leaves, salamanders may help keep carbon captured in leaf litter on the forest floor rather than being released into the atmosphere. (To understand how the global carbon cycle works, read our module The Carbon Cycle.) In addition, salamanders are important to biomedical research, as their skin secretions may provide analgesics and anti-viral medicine for humans (Hocking & Babbitt, 2014).
This fascinating and ecologically important animal can be used to gauge environmental change. In many respects, salamanders are poster children for adaptation. Their physiology and behavior changes for differing environmental circumstances. They can alternate between being water animals or land animals, depending on which environment is most conducive to survival. They may or may not keep their gills, they may have lungs, or they may breathe through their skin. They may or may not live on land, and they may or may not return to the water once they become land animals. Case in point: When conditions necessitate, salamanders can leave the water to become land-dwellers – sometimes permanently – and their skin changes to a more lizard-like texture, but if pond life becomes desirable again they can move back to the water (The New York Times). (Read our module Adaptation for more on how organisms change to fit their environment for an increased chance of survival.)
The booming salamander pet trade brought Bsal fungus to Europe from Asia. Whereas Asian salamanders can live with Bsal without showing signs of disease, their European counterparts had no resistance to the fungus. Likewise, many American species will be at great risk should the fungus make its way here. Approximately two and a half million salamanders came into the US over the decade ending in 2014, many of these from Asia. In January this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service enacted a ban on imports of 201 species of salamanders and newts and prohibits moving those species across state lines.
Biologists hope that the import ban along with a monitoring program will prove an effective barrier against Bsal invasion. The USGS has developed monitoring strategies that focus on collecting samples from locations with a high risk for Bsal. However, the huge number of salamander habitats across this vast continent poses a challenge for researchers, as it is difficult to predict outbreaks of fungal disease and remains of dead salamanders can be quickly dispatched by other animals. This is where citizen scientists come in. Volunteer scientists can be the eyes in their location. One project, Saving Salamanders with Citizen Science, asks that you take a picture if you spot a dead salamander or if you see a salamander that is alive but has noticeable skin sores or marks. Then upload your photos to the iNaturalist website of the California Academy of Sciences along with the date, location, number of dead individuals observed, species (if known but not necessary), and best guess as to cause of death (“unknown” is informative as well since it rules out other, more explainable causes).
Citizen scientists can be students or other members of the public who volunteer their time to help professional researchers answer real-world questions. By gathering data and recording observations, citizen scientists make valuable contributions to science. The information they provide will increase the body of scientific knowledge and may prompt researchers to take swift action, could feed into environmental policy decisions, and might even save a species.
Read the USGS report Salamander Chytrid Fungus (Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans) in the United States—Developing Research, Monitoring, and Management Strategies by Evan H. Grant et al., US Geological Survey (2016).
Learn why we should care about salamanders in Daniel J. Hocking & Kimberly J. Babbitt’s Amphibian contributions to ecosystem services. Herpetological Conservation and Biology, 9(1), 1−17, 2014.
If you are interested in becoming a citizen scientist but salamanders are not your thing, you can find a wide variety of citizen science projects in many different scientific fields on the National Wildlife Federation, National Geographic, and Scientific American websites.
Read about another project where the contribution of citizen scientists has been invaluable in our profile of Sergio Avila: Tracking Endangered Jaguars.
Written by Bonnie Denmark
Bonnie Denmark holds an MA in linguistics and teacher certification in English, ESL, and Spanish. She has devoted her professional life to educational and accessibility issues as a computational linguist, multimedia curriculum developer, educator, and writer. She has also worked nationally and internationally as a language instructor, educational technology consultant, and teacher trainer. Bonnie joined the Visionlearning team as a literacy specialist in 2011, assisting the project by developing comprehension aids for science modules and creating other STEM learning materials.