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An ounce of prevention: second chance?

I was quoted recently in an interview as saying, “I never realized I could have so much influence [in conservation] by putting on a suit and tie and simply talking.” The fact that my knee disability prevents me from doing real fieldwork anymore is only a subtext of the bigger story. You all certainly have heard my colleagues and me roar about the scourge of the amphibian chytrid fungus (Bd) and the devastation it has caused to amphibians around the globe. Despite my honestly optimistic personality, I accept the fact that Bd cannot be controlled in the wild. Hence, amphibian conservation with regards to such diseases becomes an issue of policy-making. It really is not a biological or veterinary challenge that we can address. My more vocal conservation colleagues and myself changed our pitch a number of years ago from a message centered on “limiting the spread of Bd in the wild” (because we now know that we cannot accomplish this) to “control the national, and especially international, trade and shipment of amphibians.” We now know that humans unwittingly triggered the global pandemic of Bd that reduced or eliminated so many amphibian populations, and caused outright extinctions. Through the commercial trade of live amphibians, a benign skin parasite of Asian amphibians was spread to new continents, where it proceeded to impact native populations. Even worse, the Asian strain began to hybridize with its close, and benign, relatives in these areas to create hybrid super-pathogens. We sparked the entire pandemic simply by shipping amphibians around the world, with no policies in place such as required health screenings or quarantine procedures. If we could roll the calendar back a few decades, my colleagues and I would be arguing for such health policies and general restrictions on trade in amphibians.

In 2013, our colleagues in Belgium published the most terrifying paper I’ve seen in my career. They confirmed that they had discovered a second species of pathogenic chytrid fungus, this one seemingly affecting salamanders most dramatically. It goes by the abbreviation “Bsal”. A key issue in this particular scenario, however, is that the fungus was identified from a decimated population of European salamanders. There was then, and still to this day is (fingers crossed!), no evidence that the fungus was present in North America, nor indeed the New World. Like Bd, this fungus also originated as a benign parasite of Asian amphibians and had been accidentally unleashed into wild populations in western Europe. This story was painfully familiar to us veterans from the “Battle of Bd,” so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey rounded up us veterans and tasked us with creating a response plan. This became the “National Bsal Task Force.” No pressure here folks, nope, none at all!

The Task Force delegates realized that we had a unique opportunity to apply the hard lessons-learned from Bd. We all agreed immediately that if Bsal managed to get into wild populations in our region, it also would be an unstoppable epidemic. Of particular concern for us is that the United States has the largest diversity of salamanders in the entire world, with our contiguous neighbors Mexico and Guatemala being next in magnitude. The conservation stakes here are very large. The National Bsal Task Force divided itself into relevant working groups, and I was placed into the Response Team. Our approach has been two-fold: 1) Lobby for national and international policies to control and health-screen amphibian shipments; and 2) Create an action template for reasoned responses in the worst-case scenario of discovery of Bsal in a zoo or wild situation. The lobbying effort has managed to get the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enact an emergency interim rule to list certain salamander species as [potentially] injurious, and prohibiting importation to the US. Yes, “Dr. Joe went to Washington!” and he wore a suit and tie! This interim rule needs to be made permanent, and expanded, but it has been successful so far in almost eliminating salamander importations. Have you noticed that you no longer see those (unsustainably wild-caught) fire-bellied salamanders in the pet shops anymore? The second action, of forming an emergency response plan, was a daunting task. It forced us to objectively consider what would be the best course-of-action if/when Bsal is found here. It is a scary document to read. It was made available online to the public recently in the form of a customizable template. We did this so that stakeholders of all types (e.g., private landowners, state and federal agencies, parks, zoos, etc.) would all have the same recommendations before them, but then can modify the details per the particular policies or protocols of their organization.

The good news is that, despite considerable amounts of field testing, Bsal still has not been found on our soil. Whew … The other news is that we have a plan to apply an ounce of prevention here, in hopes that it really worth a pound of cure. Usually I am quite proud when my efforts are published, but this publication leaves me feeling conflicted. I’m glad we all put in so much effort to produce a useful final product, but I wish the world was such that none of this was needed at all. Thank you all for your continued interest in these issues, and your support of Zoo Atlanta that allows me to devote so much energy to conservation issues of enormous proportions.
Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Research

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