When Molly Bletz was a kid, she loved to catch salamanders in her backyard. Today, as a postdoctoral researcher at UMass Boston, she is helping to save salamanders from a deadly fungus.
Bletz recently received a 2017 David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship from the Society for Conservation Biology and the Cedar Tree Foundation. The fellowship will support her research at UMass Boston, and her collaboration with the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to translate that research into effective policy and conservation action.
“North America is home to 50 percent of the world’s diversity of salamanders,” Bletz said. “They are crucial species in two ecosystems. As juveniles, they live in aquatic habitats, and as adults they become more terrestrial.”
The salamander chytrid fungus, which is deadly to many salamanders, has already traveled from Asia into Europe. While this fungus hasn’t yet impacted North American salamanders, Bletz hopes to find ways to protect these salamanders before the fungus spreads. Options for mitigation include vaccination, micro-predator manipulation (introducing bugs that might eat the fungus), or the creation of a probiotic cocktail that would boost salamanders’ ability to fight off disease.
Bletz’s mentor, Assistant Professor of Biology Doug Woodhams, has already demonstrated the efficacy of the probiotic method in his lab. Bletz compares the probiotic approach to humans eating large quantities of yogurt. The probiotics encourage good bacteria to flourish, and protect against bad microbes.
Bletz will complete her PhD at the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany this spring. The Smith Conservation Fellows collaborate with academic and practitioner partners. Bletz will work with Woodhams at UMass Boston and Priya Nanjappa of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies on this research.
Woodhams looks forward to the ways in which this fellowship will help build a bridge between UMass Boston scientists and government agencies tasked with conservation.
“It is great to have Dr. Molly Bletz joining our lab with a Smith Conservation Fellowship because we can now make greater strides toward amphibian conservation and disease management, and also interface with policy makers at the state and national levels,” Woodhams said.