Pet trade leading to US extinctions

snakesThe exotic pet trade has boomed in the past few decades, but has come with significant consequences to native wildlife. One fungus has decimated over 200 species of frogs in the past 30 years, but it now has a counterpart that could annihilate native species of salamanders in the US. The fungus has already reeked throughout native species in Europe and the importation of exotic is the reason for its proliferation.

Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, is the fungus that first wiped out frogs across the globe. It was “the worst case in recorded history of a single pathogen affecting vertebrates,” causing an “extinction rate 40,000 times higher than in the last 350 million years for amphibians,” said Vance Vredenburg of San Francisco State University.

This week a group of researchers wrote in the Journal Science about Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, a fungus in the same genus capable of destroying salamanders across the US. The researcher’s work contained sobering results for salamanders.

The fungus killed 11 of 17 species of North American and European salamanders, every animal infected with the fungus died and there was a 100 percent mortality rate of some North American species.  It kills by attacking the salamander’s skin, which many species use to breathe.

The loss of salamanders can have dramatic consequences for the planet. “We need to think about functioning ecosystems,” said Vredenburg. Salamanders are both predators and prey for other animals and play an often unnoticed but integral part in aquatic ecosystems and forests.

“These diseases … can have big impacts on the health of ecosystems when they wipe out so many of these really important little animals,” said Karen Lips, a University of Maryland co-author of the study. “If the fungus gets to the United States, where we have the world’s highest diversity of salamanders, it’s going to be bad.”

The pet trade has been identified as the reason for the spread of the fungus by Dr. James Collins at Arizona State University. More than 2.3 million Chinese fire belly newts, potential carriers of the fungus, were imported into the US for pets between 2001 and 2009. Many of these species in Japan, Vietnam and Thailand have been found to have developed immunity to it.

The good news is that the fungus has been identified before it has taken over in America, specifically the Southeast which is considered the hotbed for salamanders. The problem is that animals being imported as pets are not inspected when they enter the US. Only animals that pose threats to agriculture are.

“When animals are traded, they should be screened,” said An Martel of Ghent University of Belgium. “We need to think about biosecurity not just in terms of humans and food that we eat and crops that we grow. It should involve the world.”

The US Forest Service is meeting with the team of researchers to find ways to be ready for the fungus when it reaches us. “It’s not here yet. So we have time, and there is hope,” said Dede Olsen, an ecologist with the forest service.

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