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Scientists Fight Fungus Threatening Endangered Snake

Epidemiologist Matt Allender came up with a test for sick snakes that's much quicker and less invasive. (University of Illinois)
Epidemiologist Matt Allender came up with a test for sick snakes that's much quicker and less invasive. (University of Illinois)
May 1, 2017

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – A fungal disease is threatening to wipe out a snake species that's already a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake has been disappearing across the country because of habitat loss and environmental stresses.

Epidemiologist Matt Allender at the University of Illinois says the snakes also are dying from chrysosporium, a fungus that has plagued the pet reptile industry but isn't normally found in the wild.

He says although it may have been around for decades, scientists have only been seeing snakes die of the disease for several years in the Midwest and Northeast, and now they're finding it in parts of the Southwest. He says the mortality rate for infected snakes is more than 90 percent.

"The largest population in Illinois may have only about 100 to 150 snakes, and if 90 percent of the ones we find die, each individual becomes pretty important and a priority for the species conservation," he states.

The disease first was noticed in New Hampshire in 2006, then quickly found its way in Illinois. Allender says it's now been discovered in 14 snake species in at least 16 states.

Allender was able to develop a quick and minimally invasive test for the fungus, and now has found a way to treat infected snakes by using over-the-counter nebulizers to pump medicine into aquariums.

"Not only does the snake get some of the drugs, they got the therapeutic levels within 15 minutes,” he explains. “We also saw that the vapor was landing on the skin of the snake, and that's where all of the crusts and infections were, so the animal was getting treated from the inside and the outside."

The fungus acts much like White- nose syndrome, which is killing millions of bats in the United States. Allender says if left unchecked, this fungal infection potentially could completely wipe out the Eastern Massasaugas.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IL