But experts quickly found the carcass of a rattlesnake apparently dead from a “serious oral infection of fungal origin,” he wrote in a study published in 2011.
An outbreak later associated with MFS wiped out about 50% of the state’s forest rattlesnakes; we went from 40 adults to 19.
“It was far-reaching and disturbing,” he says.
Fortunately, the population survived and today, according to Michael Marchand, there are about 50 people. It is not known what caused this increase. It is possible that the survivors passed on a form of immunity to their descendants, he said.
Geoffrey Lorch and Matthew Allender have been researching whether these snakes have developed immunity for nearly a decade. And this is just one of the many mysteries they are trying to solve.
For example, the team found that MFS is systemic in nature. It first affects the skin and then causes, in some cases, internal lesions. But not the latter are fatal. Matthew Allender believes that they die from an overreaction of the immune system.
Today, science can confirm that snakes transmit diseases to each other when they come into contact with each other. This means not only that species that live in the same den or winter together are affected, but also that courtship and mating are modes of transmission. According to Jeffrey Lorch, the fungus can also be passed from mothers to their offspring.
In addition, according to Matthew Allender, very many areas and habitats favor the development of this fungus.
“The conditions for its development are much less stringent than for white nose syndrome, which is already highly contagious,” explains Matthew Allender. fungus P. destructance killed over six million bats in North America.
Despite the fact thatophidiomycetes has been found in dozens of snake species, some more severely than others. For example, researchers have measured the infection rate of some water snakes at 80% (however, their mortality remains relatively low). Rattlesnakes and some vipers are especially vulnerable to infection and die more easily.
At one point, the mortality rate for infected Massasauga exceeded 90%. Although the epidemic has not wiped out this species, native to the US Northeast and Midwest, according to Matthew Allender, “it’s not in good shape.”
HOPE IS ALLOWED
The good news, conservationists say, is that the fungus isn’t as deadly to snakes as white nose syndrome or chytridiomycosis is for some Central American amphibians, which are known to kill 100 percent.
“Diseases like chytridosis and white nose syndrome have emerged and caused massive population decline in a very short period of time, but other diseases are much more latent,” says Jeffrey Lorch. According to him, the snake fungal disease “could potentially be a hanging type disease.”
Meanwhile, the biggest concern seems to be rare snakes like the indigo snake, which is critically endangered in Georgia and Florida due to habitat destruction. According to Huston Chandler, scientific director of the Orianna Society, a Georgian organization specializing in saving indigo snakes, these black rainbow snakes also need burrows dug by puffer turtles (another endangered reptile).
In other words, indigo snakes have enough trouble. But in some places in southern Georgia, more than half are affected by MFS. However, to date, researchers have not documented the mass mortality of infected snakes.
“So it’s not reassuring, but it doesn’t seem like an immediate threat to their conservation,” says Houston Chandler.
RACE FOR MONEY
Stephen Price, a conservation biologist at the University of Kentucky and a National Geographic researcher with a fascination with snake wombs, says some research suggests this fungal infection does change the behavior of affected snakes.
His research shows, for example, that infected Kentucky queen snakes stay out of their burrows longer than those that are not affected by the disease.
Although he can’t be sure, Stephen Price suggests that infected snakes spend more time in the sun than uninfected ones. Perhaps in order to raise the body temperature to fight the fungus.
In New Hampshire, Michael Marchand and colleagues found that forest rattlesnakes migrate to places where there are gaps in the forest canopy, suggesting that sunlight exposure keeps the snakes healthy.
To test this, they cut down trees in certain places so that their snakes have more room to bask.
In the same vein, Matthew Allender’s team is testing potential antifungal drugs.
They tested propriconazole, a popular over-the-counter fungicide commonly used on fruit trees and shrubs. According to Matthew Allender, this did not affect ophidiomycetes, on the contrary: it rather favored the growth of the fungus.
But there is another option, terbinafine, which is already being used to treat fungi that crawl under a person’s nails. In a study published in 2017, Matthew Allender put water moccasins into nebulizers and showed that the drug accumulated in their bodies in significant amounts. Terbinafine slow-release implants have also shown to be effective.
If new studies prove that terbinafine kills O. ophiodiicola, both of these methods of administration can provide non-invasive and safe treatments for endangered wild and venomous species.
Geoffrey Lorch adds that there is generally not enough funding to study the pathogens that affect reptiles. This is partly due to the fact that “snakes remain a harmful group today, and therefore there is little public interest in them.”
“In a few decades, we should not realize that we should have invested more in the study of these diseases,” he warns.