Deadly Fungus Kills Snakes Across the Midwest and Northeast: New Test May Help

First Posted: Jul 15, 2014 01:21 PM EDT

A deadly fungus is sweeping across the Midwest and eastern United States, killing native snakes as it makes its way through the population. Now, scientists have found a more accurate way to test for this infection, which could give them the leg up they need when it comes to combating its spread.

Researchers first noticed Ophidiomyces in snakes in the mid-2000s. These days, the fungus threatens the last remaining eastern massasauga rattlesnake population in Illinois. In addition, the fungus can infect timber rattlesnakes, mud snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, milk snakes, water snakes and racers in several states.

The fungus itself creates scabs, nodules, abnormal molting and ulcers on snake skin and is actually very similar to the fungus implicated in white-nose syndrome, another fungal disease that has killed millions of North American bats. Mortality, unfortunately, is 100 percent in Illinois massasauga rattlesnakes with outward signs of infection. Since there are only 100 to 150 of these rattlesnakes left in Illinois, it's crucial to find ways to combat this disease.

"We need people to know that they don't have to anesthetize an animal to collect a biopsy sample or, worse yet, euthanize snakes in order to test for the infection," said Matthew Allender, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Now we can identify the infections earlier, we can intervene earlier and we can potentially increase our success of treatment or therapy."

The new tests that the researchers have created use quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), which amplifies fungal DNA to identify the species present and measure the extent of the infection.

"Our qPCR is more than 1,000 times more sensitive than conventional PCR," said Allender. "We can know how many [fungal spores] are in a swab and then we can start to treat the snake and we can watch to see if that number is going down."

The findings could help researchers better find and treat snakes that are infected. More specifically, it will help them to prevent the spread of the disease to new locales.

The findings were presented at the 2014 Mycological Society of America annual Meeting.

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