Beginning in the 1980s, emerging pathogens have contributed to a global decline in amphibian populations. As a result of disease and other factors, amphibians are the most imperiled terrestrial vertebrate class on Earth. With both ranavirus (a genus of viruses in the family Iridoviridae) and chytrid fungus (a fungus in the phylum Chytridiomycota) being two of the biggest culprits, biologists and veterinarians are investigating the prevalence and transmission of these pathogens in amphibian populations all over the world.
In the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, researchers from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville have been studying ranavirus and chytrid fungus prevalence for the last decade in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Known as the ‘Salamander Capital of the World’, this relatively small area contains some thirty species of salamanders, several of which are endemic to the park itself. This makes amphibian research in the Southern Appalachians vital when attempting to understand the global significance of certain pathogens like ranavirus and chytrid fungus, which in general, remain understudied.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, vast swathes of the Smoky Mountains had been logged. Many native species, including amphibians, were decimated as a result. After being decreed a National Park in 1934, the Smokies made an extraordinary recovery and are once again intact and forested with large, mature trees. This has given Southern Appalachian salamanders a second chance at survival. With the help of dedicated scientists and concerned citizens, salamanders in Tennessee and North Carolina are fighting to avoid what has been called the Sixth Mass Extinction.
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