A fungal disease in snakes has the potential to infect any kind of snake, which in turn could present a huge worldwide threat to ecosystems, biologists have discovered.
Scientists determined that the fungus that causes Snake Fungal Disease (SFD) is Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, in 2015. But the fungus has been present in North America much longer than that, and was already marked as a potential threat to snakes in 2006, Newsweek reports. The fungus was deemed so dangerous that it halved the population of timber rattlesnakes in half.
A team of researchers at the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab have tried out the infection on different kinds of snakes and found that as early as 12 days after a snake is infected, symptoms can begin showing. The fungus affects eyes, nose, mouth, throat and lungs, can cause blindness, problems with breathing and eating, and pneumonia.
When the fungus spreads, it stays under a snake’s scales, causing swelling. Sometimes, it can enter the animal’s body, causing a systemic fungal infection. There are antifungal treatments, but these have been proven to work on some species only. For snakes that are untreated, there is a 40% mortality rate, Cornell said. Snakes may shed their skin and cure themselves, but since shedding happens during specific times only, the snakes sometimes die before getting the chance.
Most of the fungal infections happen in Europe and the United States among snakes so diverse that scientists believe that this could affect all snakes.
Frank Burbrink, associate curator at the American Museum of Natural History, said,
It could be in the environment already, it could be transmitted by humans or even captive animals. But we know definitely that it spreads from one snake to another when they touch.
If the fungal disease were to spread out of control, it would devastate the world’s ecosystems. Burbrink said, “Snakes have a massive service for human beings, they eat rodents, they serve as food for other animals. This could be pretty devastating, and they’re important in the food web as mid-level predators. We can’t afford to lose them as a whole.”