A deadly fungus has been spreading throughout the salamander population around the globe, vexing conservationists and pet owners alike.
The chytrid fungus has spread from Asia to the Netherlands and Germany through the pet trade, and could reach North America the same way. Scientists fear that it will kill off rare salamanders in the wild, posing a major risk to the biodiversity of salamander populations in North America.
In a study published recently in Trends in Microbiology, UMass Boston Biology Professor Doug Woodhams has uncovered a method that might help save species of salamanders and frogs from the fungus – using good bacteria to help salamanders fight off chytrid fungal infection.
Amphibian skin is mucousy and moist, more like the lining of the human esophagus and gut. Some amphibians carry beneficial bacteria on their skin, just as we carry beneficial gut bacteria. Woodhams’ research indicates that this bacteria could be used to protect amphibian species that have not co-evolved to deal with that kind the fungus.
“In the lab, we can figure out which bacteria makes a good probiotic, and apply it to individual amphibians, and make sure that they’re resistant to the infection,” Woodhams said.
This method could work for amphibians in captivity in zoos or pets in quarantine. In the wild, it’s more challenging to apply a probiotic to the skin of every salamander.
But new possibilities are emerging for managing the resistance of wild salamanders. Scientists have known for a long time that these types of bacteria are found in soil, but finding them on the skin of amphibians is new. If scientists can encourage that good bacteria to grow and flourish in the salamanders’ environment, the amphibians might have a higher resistance to chytrid fungus.
“One of the new things we found is that there are bacteria on the skin of amphibians that produce volatile compounds that can kill the fungus at a distance,” said Woodhams.
Woodhams said he loves salamanders and frogs, but he knows that not everyone shares his enthusiasm for amphibians. He said that it’s important to keep in mind that the United States, and the Appalachian region in particular, has some of the greatest diversity of salamanders in the world.
Woodhams said the fungus has already killed fire salamanders in Europe. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released a ruling in January declaring 201 salamander species to be “injurious wildlife” in an attempt to halt the spread of the fungus.
“Amphibians are an integral part of the ecosystem, they perform important functions,” Woodhams said. “In some places, like the Appalachian mountains, there are more salamanders than any other vertebrate.”