Deadly Fungal Disease Is Killing Rattlesnakes

First Posted: Jun 13, 2017 06:34 AM EDT

Fungal diseases have plagued many species over the years, including frogs, bats and even salamanders. The latest victims, however, are snakes. If scientists cannot find a way to stop the disease, it could lead to disastrous results.

Caused by a pathogen called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, the snake fungus marks the species with skin lesions and thick blisters that can not only disfigure a snake's face but prevents it from eating, which leads to starvation. While the mortality rate of the disease varies in different species, it is especially high in rattlesnakes, The National Geographic noted.

In the United States alone, as many as 30 snake species have been found to be infected. But Jonathan Kolby, an American biologist and conservationist, noted that the infection can make any of the world's 3,000 snake species just as vulnerable. Newser reported that the fungus had been identified in snakes as far back as 1880. However, the fatal lesions that were seen in snakes and other species only began appearing as late as 2000.

How the pathogen spreads is yet to be determined, as scientists are still unsure where they came from or why they suddenly became aggressive. However, an expert noted that habitat destruction, as well as cooler and wetter spring climates, has led the snakes underground for longer periods, making them more vulnerable to getting infected by the fungus.

Kolby noted that the disease could have started in the U.S. However, it has also been spotted in captive snakes in other countries, including England, Australia and Germany.

While snakes can be scary and oftentimes dangerous, they do play an important role in ecology. Snakes are noted to keep rodent population in check. If decimated by the disease, there could be a global increase in the number of mice and rats. Rodents are known to spread ticks and parasites. In fact, even though they are not poisonous per se, they prove to be worrisome for human health.

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