Snake population threatened by fungal disease

In the case of snake fungal disease, if the Jedi Knight from “Star Wars,” Obi-Wan Kenobi, summoned the power of nature by uttering, “The spores be with you,” he would be spot on. This infectious organism features minute spores that produce a fungus capable of defeating powerful venomous snakes. Virtually unheard of in the wild prior to 2006, Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola has been found on wild snakes in nearly a dozen states, including New Hampshire and Vermont. It is suspected of wiping out half the population of timber rattlesnakes in New Hampshire between 2006 and 2007.
Snake fungal disease, or SFD, causes snakes to develop opaque eyes, scabby scales and misshapen nodules on their heads and bodies. Their skin swells and thickens, develops ulcers, and sheds prematurely. Because SFD occurs on animals in captivity, where it thrives in warm, moist conditions, some scientists suspect that the fungus may have migrated into the wild as temperatures and humidity have increased. Climate change may also make it easier for diseases to spread during the winter, when many snakes hibernate en masse underground.
Dr. Jeffrey Lorch of the University of Wisconsin Madison has conducted most of the recent fungus cultures on snakeskins for the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center. He says that anecdotal field reports suggest that SFD has been in North America “for quite some time,” and may even be a native species. (Lorch’s previous research was instrumental in identifying the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, which has killed millions of bats throughout the Northeast.)
SFD infects all kinds of snakes — from rat snakes to rattlers. “It is likely that most snake species in eastern North America can contract SFD,” says Lorch, “but we really do not know the population-level impacts at this time or how the infection varies between species.” The greatest concern has arisen with snake species that occur in small, isolated populations, for which losses of even a few animals could severely limit the ability of those populations to persist or recover.
These vulnerable species include timber rattlesnakes. Endangered in Vermont and New Hampshire, rattlesnakes survive as relict populations that harbor little genetic diversity, so it’s less likely that an individual will emerge that is resistant to SFD. Vermont’s Rutland County is home to two populations that contain the last few hundred individuals. In New Hampshire, rattlesnakes have been reduced to a single population.
The best way to minimize SFD is to report sightings of infected snakes to the appropriate state or federal agency. Take photographs, if you can do it safely. “Citizen reporting,” says Lorch, “can help determine how widespread SFD is, which species are affected, and whether the disease poses a significant risk to snakes across the Eastern U.S.”
Lorch urges precautions to avoid spreading the disease, such as disinfecting equipment, clothing and hands after handling captive and wild snakes. “It is a good idea to prevent wild and captive (particularly exotic) snakes from having any sort of contact with one another if one of the animals may be released back into the wild.”
But why care if snakes disappear? As predators that slither along the middle links of the food-chain, snakes keep populations of prey in check, including grasshoppers, mice, voles, rats and other critters that frequently damage and destroy crops and gardens. Snakes provide food for larger animals, such as hawks, owls, coyotes, raccoons and foxes. As part of the natural diversity of life, they help ecosystems to be more resilient.
Snakes also have medical uses. Several drugs, including eptifibatide and tirofiban — used to prevent blood clots in patients with symptoms of chest pains and minor heart attacks — are based on snake venom proteins. When administered in time, these drugs help prevent a full-blown infarction.
And where would humans be without these iconic animals to challenge us and serve as a force against which we take our measure? Although many people revile them, snakes and other reptiles inspire a sense of excitement, awe and mystery. As the Goliaths to our David, they keep us strong and make us feel alive.
Michael J. Caduto is an author, ecologist, and storyteller who lives in Reading. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlandsmagazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: [email protected]

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