Emerging Snake Disease Confirmed In Wild Georgia Snake

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A disease that some scientists have compared to the illness killing bats by the millions has been documented in a wild snake in Georgia.

An emaciated mud snake from Bulloch County tested positive last month for Snake Fungal Disease, according to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study. The mud snake is the first free-ranging snake from Georgia that the Athens-based cooperative has confirmed with Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, the fungus associated with the disease.

Snake Fungal Disease is a severe dermatitis that causes scabs, crusty scales, nodules, abnormal molting and other changes to a snake’s skin. First reported in a captive black rat snake from Sparta, Ga., since 2006 the disease has turned up in growing numbers of wild snakes in the eastern and midwestern U.S. At least eight species, varying from milk snakes to eastern racers, have been infected.

The severity of infection varies and the overall impact on populations is not clear. Yet, among Illinois’ last population of eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, all of the snakes that showed signs of infection died, according to a University of Illinois professor studying Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola. In New Hampshire, the disease was implicated in a 50-percent decline in an imperiled population of timber rattlesnakes.

The increasing reports and potential threat have prompted comparisons to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed an estimated 5.7 million hibernating bats and spread from the Northeast to as far west as Missouri. White-nose was confirmed in Georgia in 2013. The fungus related to white-nose is similar in some aspects to Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, including that it occurs naturally in soil.

Senior wildlife biologist John Jensen, a herpetologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, suggested that Snake Fungal Disease is, for now, a deeper mystery than white-nose. “There’s a lot more we don’t know about it,” said Mr. Jensen, who works for DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.

The challenge in learning more is that snakes are more difficult to monitor than many other animals.

Wildlife biologist Dr. Jessica McGuire of the Nongame Conservation Section said that when studying such diseases, “You opportunistically get what data you can, and focus from there.”

Questions include how Snake Fungal Disease is transmitted, what factors spur infections and how can the disease be treated. The fungus is not transmitted to humans, according to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study. However, people could possibly carry it on clothes or equipment.

“This case definitely highlights the importance of disinfecting field gear,” Dr. McGuire said of the mud snake.

A volunteer with The Orianne Society, a Georgia-based nonprofit focused on conserving imperiled snakes, found the emaciated snake on the edge of a blackwater swamp near Statesboro.

"Because mud snakes are cryptic and solitary, the incident could point to the ease at which the disease is spread," Mr. Jensen said. “I guess the take-home message is that all of our snakes may be susceptible to this.”

While noting that hundreds of healthy snakes have been found in Georgia and the eastern U.S. this year, Dirk Stevenson of The Orianne Society called the emerging disease issue troubling. “Scientists with The Orianne Society will closely examine all snakes they encounter – including the federally protected eastern indigo snake – at study sites in Georgia and other states for symptoms of the fungus,” said Mr. Stevenson, director of the organization’s Fire Forest Initiative.

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