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Scientists to Scour Indiana for Signs of Reptile-Killing Fungus

Snakes have been dying all over the Midwest from a fungus similar to White Nose Syndrome. (University of Illinois)
Snakes have been dying all over the Midwest from a fungus similar to White Nose Syndrome. (University of Illinois)
May 1, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS – 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.

So far it hasn't turned up in the Hoosier State, but Allender says that could be because no one's been looking for it.

"Indiana Department of Natural Resources just gave us a grant and we're going to start to look for that in the next two years,” he relates. “That's going to start within the next two weeks, and I anticipate us finding it."

The disease first was noticed in New Hampshire in 2006, and then 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 - IN