Scientists Warn Snake Fungus Could Threaten Various Species On A Global Level

Annette ShaffShutterstock

A new study suggests that a dangerous form of snake fungus can be found in over 20 U.S. species, and could possibly threaten several other species in various parts of the world.

As detailed in a study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, the researchers used modeling techniques to study different features and characteristics of snakes suffering from the fungal disease and those believed to be potentially vulnerable. After analyzing the reptiles’ physical, evolutionary, and ecological features, no obvious common trend was detected, which led the researchers to conclude that there might be 98 groups of snakes in the eastern U.S., and some others around the globe, that could be vulnerable to the fungus known as Ophidiomyces ophidiodiicola. Currently, there are 23 species in the U.S. confirmed to have what is simply referred to as “snake fungal disease.”

Currently, the disease associated with the fungus is found in garter snakes, milk snakes, vipers, and other wild species from the eastern part of the U.S., as well as three European species. According to USA Today, its typical symptoms include lesions that could rapidly spread across a snake’s body, and while these lesions may subside after a snake molts, the molting process would normally leave snakes exposed to the sun longer than usual. This exposure, the researchers warned, could put the animals at risk of starvation or attacks from predators.

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With his team failing to find any species of snakes immune to the fungal disease, American Museum of National History curator and study lead author Frank Burbink stressed the importance of considering the broader snake population when safeguarding against the disease, and not just focusing on those that are actually affected by it.

“This really is the worst-case scenario,” read a statement from Burbink.

“Our study suggests that first responders shouldn’t just be looking for certain types of snakes that have this disease, but at the whole community.”

The milk snake is among the species known to carry snake fungal disease.Featured image credit: Joe FarahShutterstock

As noted by BBC News, snakes aren’t the only wild animals that have been threatened by fungal diseases in recent years. Millions of bats in the U.S., for instance, have been killed by white nose syndrome, while the world’s frog populations have dwindled as a result of chytrid fungus. Snake fungal disease, on the other hand, has the potential to have a similarly deadly effect on snake populations, killing the reptiles in just a few days’ time as they develop the aforementioned lesions and secondary infections.

“The demographic of the disease and how its really working across all these species and populations are unknown, but we do know that it can take populations down, it can have 100 percent mortality in some,” Burbink told BBC News.

At the moment, the researchers aren’t sure if snake fungal disease had suddenly started to grow worse, as there are still many unanswered questions related to the team’s findings. But Burbink and his fellow researchers encouraged their fellow scientists to be vigilant for symptoms, and work closely with local officials to come up with preventative measures to ensure that snakes are safe from the fungal disease.

“Researchers need to work with decision-makers to prevent snake fungal disease from spreading, survey museums and field sites to determine the current distribution of the disease, run trials in the lab, and start working on treatments,” said study co-author Karen Lips, a biology professor at the University of Maryland.