March 8, 2021

Temperature, newts and a skin-eating fungus

Salamanders are more sensitive to a skin-eating fungus at colder temperatures, pointing to locations of North America where pathogen invasion is most likely.

The emergence of pathogenic skin fungi that cause the disease chytridiomycosis is contributing to the global loss of amphibian populations. 

The fungus “Bsal” was discovered killing salamanders in the Netherlands in 2010 and has since spread to other European countries. To identify North American locations where pathogen invasion is most likely — and develop disease management strategies — Louise Rollins-Smith, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Tennessee evaluated the effects of environmental temperature on Bsal pathogenicity and host immune defense. 

In controlled laboratory experiments using the eastern newt, a widely distributed salamander species, the researchers found that newts died faster from Bsal chytridiomycosis at colder temperatures. Pathogen replication rates, newt skin microbiome composition and newt production of antimicrobial skin proteins contributed to the temperature-dependent relationship, they reported in PLOS Pathogens. 

The findings show that newt populations in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada are at greatest risk for Bsal invasion, identifying areas for increased Bsal surveillance.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defense.