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Fungus Killing Missouri Snakes

Small numbers of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake live in Chariton, Linn, and Holt counties.
Small numbers of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake live in Chariton, Linn, and Holt counties.
May 2, 2017

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A face-disfiguring 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 and wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Matt Allender at the University of Illinois, says they've been 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 most snakes infected with it die, and that could potentially wipe the species out.

"If 15 to 20 percent, a fifth of the population, get this every year - and 90 percent is the true mortality rate - then recruitment and birth rate cannot sustain that long term," he says.

Small numbers of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake live in Chariton, Linn and Holt counties. The disease that's killing it has 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 from the outside."

The fungus acts much like White Nose Syndrome, which is killing millions of bats in the United States.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MO