Are Appalachian Salamanders Carrying a Deadly Fungus?

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Only for science would I spend my Saturday morning sitting on minnow nets in the back of a mud-stained, blue pickup. Armed with latex gloves and the wrong kind of shoes, I was happy to be out of the office and helping Smithsonian researchers catch salamanders at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia.

Brian Gratwicke, the zoo's amphibian biologist, warned me that this was not going to be a relaxing hike in the woods. A deadly fungus that’s wiping out the world’s amphibians is spreading through Virginia, and Gratwicke needed extra hands to swab salamanders for evidence of the invader, known as chytrid or Bd (Batrachochytridium dendrobatidis). The results will reveal whether the fungus has reached the Conservation Center’s 3,200-acre campus, located in the northern tip of Shenandoah National Park.

Thirty-five volunteers showed up for the bioblitz, a 24-hour inventory of the park's amphibians. Most of the participants were National Zoo employees, wearing T-shirts that read "I Root For Endangered Species" or "Disappearing: 50% of World's Amphibians." There was no hiding their passion for herpetons, the Greek word for reptiles and amphibians. The park is the perfect place for salamander lovers especially. The Appalachian Mountains are home to 14 percent of the world's 535 salamander species.

"What’s your favorite herp?" I asked two other volunteers riding in the dirty, blue pickup with me.

"Gopher tortoise," said Edith, an animal pathologist.

"Too many to choose from," said Barbara, a reptile house zookeeper with a degree in anthropology.

We were part of Stream Team One, the group responsible for finding salamanders under rocks and leaf litter along Shenandoah Park's muddy banks. Once caught, we were to swab the salamanders slimy underbellies for fungal spores and then set them free. Although, not everything goes as planned.

Growing up in New York City has made me naive when it comes to nature. I had expected the salamanders to be sitting in plain sight, waiting for a human to scoop them up and tickle their bellies with cotton swabs. What I learned is that the critters are small, fast and they can swim.

Searching for salamanders also helped me understand what it takes to do conservation work. I never realized that the reason we know how many beetles or frogs there are in Virginia or New Mexico is because a biologist got on his or her hands and knees, fought off a few ticks, and counted.

By the time evening came, I had caught two salamanders. Of those two, one escaped its Ziplock bag before he could be properly swabbed. "Perhaps we won't count you as a searcher," Gratwicke told me. The others were more successful. After surveying more than 30 sites, the teams had collected hundreds of samples. "It was a good salamander day," Gratwicke said. "There was a lot of wet stuff and it didn't rain."

Gratwicke now has enough swabs to find out whether or not the chytrid fungus is on Zoo property. The samples will be tested for the presence of chytrid DNA, a process that will take two months. If positive, the Conservation Center will be a handy laboratory to test possible measures to combat the disease. If negative, scientists will try to prevent chytrid's spread. For now, we wait.

The chytrid fungus is a global problem, with the potential of wiping out more than half of the world's 5,743 known amphibian species within our lifetimes. Check out the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, to learn about the National Zoo's recently announced initiative to stop the fungus in Panama.

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