White-Nose Syndrome in Bats Parallels New Deadly Fungal Disease in Snakes

First Posted: Jun 22, 2015 09:18 AM EDT

Scientists may have found a link between two deadly fungal infections. Researchers have taken a closer look at snake fungal disease and have found that it's eerily similar to the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats.

The snake fungus, in this case, is called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola. It possesses traits that allows it to persist across a range of habitats and infect multiple species.

"The fungus killing these snakes is remarkably similar in its basic biology to the fungus that has killed millions of bats," said Andrew Miller, one of the authors of the new study, in a news release. "It occurs in the soil, seems to grow on a wide variety of substances, and it possesses many of the same enzymes that make the bat fungus so persistent."

The snake and bat pathogens both emerged in North America in the mid-2000s, and each is sweeping across the United States and into parts of Canada. Unfortunately, researchers are having trouble keeping up with the wave of infections and finding ways to protect the animals.

The snake fungus consumes keratin, which is a key ingredient in snake scales. It can cause scabs, nodules, abnormal molting, ulcers and other disfiguring changes to snake skin and other tissues. Mortality in affected snakes is about 100 percent.

Both the bat and snake fungi infect a variety of species. In addition, both can live as a saprobe, consuming dead organic matter.

"Ophidiomyces ophidiicola is an emerging infectious disease," said Frank Gleason, co-author of the new study. "Because it can grow within such a wide range of environmental conditions and is highly virulent, it could be spread to new habitats by the release of infested pet snakes and by the international animal trade, infecting many more species of snakes worldwide."

Because of its similarity to white-nose syndrome, researchers are working on better understanding the disease and have even formed a task team.

The findings are published in the journal Fungal Ecology.

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