European salamander at risk of extinction: study

Fire salamanders, like the one pictured here, are highly vulnerable to a new virulent fungus (AFP Photo/Frank Pasmans)

Paris (AFP) - Europe's already endangered salamander population faces extinction due to a new, virulent fungus that also poses a broader threat to biodiversity, according to a new study.

Even a small amount of the highly infectious pathogen could wipe out fire salamanders from Western Europe, as the amphibian lacks the immune response to fight it off, researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"The fungus presents a 'perfect storm'," said senior author An Martel, a professor at Ghent University in Belgium.

"The result is that within six month's time, infected fire salamander populations are reduced by more than 90 percent, and are finally extirpated."

Following an outbreak in 2014, a team of biologists led by Ghent University monitored a colony of vulnerable salamanders for two years, leading to the grim discovery of the pathogen's fatal impact.

Fungal spores -- protected by cells with thick, water-resistant exteriors -- have a long lifespan and can thrive even when they do not inhabit a living organism.

The pathogen can spread through soil, water and air. It can also attach itself to less susceptible birds or frogs, which in turn spread the infection to salamanders.

Dubbed "Bsal" -- short for Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans -- the deadly fungi first appeared on the European continent in 2010.

Scientists believe the global trade in forestry, agricultural and wildlife species are responsible for the invasion of fungi in non-native habitats.

Given the super-fungus' characteristics -- high virulence and rapid expansion -- biologists worry that methods to contain the disease may prove ineffective.

"Classical measures to control animal diseases such as vaccination and repopulation will not be successful and eradication of the fungus from the ecosystem is unlikely," said Gwij Stegen, one of the authors.