Deadly fungus killing British newts after spread from east Asia

Great-crested British newt at risk from east Asian parasite

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The international trade in pet newts and salamanders has spread a deadly skin fungus from east Asia to Europe, posing a further threat to the endangered great-crested newt of Britain, scientists said.

A previously unknown fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans was first discovered last year and a survey of more than 5,000 amphibians across the world has revealed its global spread from its native Asia.

Scientists believe the pet trade has helped the fungus to spread from Thailand, Vietnam, China and Japan to Europe, where it has already caused the collapse of fire salamanders in the Netherlands.

So far the disease, which does not appear to harm frogs or toads, appears to be limited to the Netherlands and Belgium, but experts at the Zoological Society of London believe it poses a threat to Britain’s native amphibians, including the great-crested newt.

“When a disease has been around for a long time, animals develop resistance to it. Globalisation has resulted in the movement of humans and animals all across the world, bringing pathogens into contact with hosts that haven’t had the opportunity to establish resistance,” said Professor An Martel of Ghent University.

“As a consequence, pathogens like B. salamandrivorans that are brought to a new environment can very rapidly threaten many species with extinction,” said Professor Martel, one of the authors of the study published in the journal Science.

Asian salamanders and newts are traded in large numbers across the globe – for instance more than 2.3m Chinese firebelly newts were imported into the US between 2001 and 2009. The researchers found that the fungus can easily be transmitted between salamanders of different species by direct contact.

Karen Lips, an amphibian expert at the University of Maryland, said a clampdown in the pet trade is vital.

“If scientists and policy makers work together on this, we have a rare opportunity to stop an epidemic from spreading around the globe with potentially deadly effect,” Dr Lips said.