With its black and yellow coloration and stately size of up to about 20 centimeters, the fire salamander is one of the best known and most charismatic amphibians in Europe. In Central Europe, it is a typical inhabitant of beech and mixed deciduous forests. Although it has been affected by habitat changes and environmental pollution, its population has not yet been considered endangered. However, a sudden new threat now raises fears for the future of this characteristic species, for which Germany bears a special responsibility.
The salamander plague
The salamander plague
The salamander eating fungus
When numerous dead fire salamanders were suddenly found in an apparently undisturbed habitat in the Netherlands between 2008 and 2011, researchers were initially baffled. An entire, very well-studied population had been wiped out in a short period of time. Finally, the culprit was tracked down, scientifically described in 2013 – and given the self-explanatory name Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal for short, which translates as salamander-eating fungus.
Diversity of Central European Fire Salamanders
According to previous knowledge, infected salamanders die unless they are treated. Unfortunately, the fungus can be transmitted not only from salamander to salamander, but also via soil, water, plants and other amphibians. After spreading from the Netherlands-Belgium-Germany border triangle through the Eifel region to the Ruhr area, it was also detected for the first time in Bavaria in 2020. There is great concern that the fungus is spreading nationwide. Even the extinction of the fire salamander in Germany and its neighboring countries is thus a realistic threat.
Unfortunately, the fungus can be transmitted not only from salamander to salamander, but also through soil, water, plants, and other amphibians.
Fire salamander died from bsal in Essen, Germany | Miguel Vences
Threatened salamander diversity
So far, nothing can be done against the fungus in nature – except to hope that it will not spread further or that the salamanders will eventually develop a natural resistance to it. By then, entire lineages of the fire salamander may have disappeared. Which would be a particularly severe loss, because not all fire salamanders are the same. In addition to individual differences, there are important regional differences. According to current knowledge, three major genetic lineages occur in Germany, distributed between the two subspecies Salamandra salamandra and S. s. terrestris. Within these “main lineages”, however, individual populations may develop their own peculiarities, be it in appearance or behavior.
Ark urgently needed!| Jak|Zdenek, Shutterstock
A refuge from the plague
In order to preserve as much as possible of the original diversity of Central European fire salamanders, Citizen Conservation wants to establish conservation breeds with animals from different locations and from all three major genetic lines, and manage their keeping. This is a considerable effort for which we depend on money, but also on the help of many salamander fans who lend a hand in keeping and breeding – be it private individuals, zoos or schools and other institutions.