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Deadly Fungal Disease Threatens Snake Populations Across The Globe

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A new study describes the spread of a fungal disease that is currently threatening the world's snake population. The fast-spreading fungus causes blisters, crusty scales, lesions, and opaque eyes.

Deadly Disease

A fast-spreading, deadly disease caused by the fungus Ophidiomyces ophidiodiicola is responsible for the infection of snakes in the United States and Europe, and it can possibly spread to any snake population around the world. As it stands, there are already 23 infected species in the United States, including ratsnakes, gartersnakes and milksnakes, as well as three European snake species.

The deadly disease caused by the said fungi has previously been recorded in vertebrates such as bats and amphibians and is marked by crusty scales, lesions, discoloration on rough scales, opaque eyes, and raised blisters. It is transmitted through skin to skin contact or when the snakes slither along an infected environment.

While the fungal disease primarily affects the skin of the snakes and may dissipate when the snake molts, the changes in the snake's actions in response to the infection places the snakes in increased risks of danger. For instance, the snakes with the infection tend to molt rapidly and bask for longer periods, resulting in starvation, predation, and prolonged exposure.

Global Snake Community Threatened

In order to search for common traits between the infected snakes and to possibly identify potentially susceptible species, researchers used an artificial neural network and found that there were no common traits, whether physical, evolutionary, or ecological. This leads researchers to the disturbing suggestion that the fungus does not just affect a specific type of snake but may also affect all snakes worldwide. In other words, every snake species in the world could be at risk.

"Our study suggests that first responders shouldn't just be looking for certain types of snakes that have this disease, but at the whole community," said Frank Burbrink of the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Herpetology, lead author of the study.

Prevention Policy

Because of their findings, researchers believe that preventing the spread of the disease along with working on possible treatments are vital in protecting the world's snakes. After all, though many have a fear of snakes, they are an important part of the world's ecosystem. In the United States, the infection is already causing population declines in infected species.

So far, researchers are trying to understand the disease further such as its global occurrence, the mortality rate among the affected snake species, and the effects of humans in disease transmission. This way, perhaps it would be possible to prevent a significant population decline such as the case of the white-nose syndrome in bats wherein the infection has spread from coast to coast, resulting in major population decline in at least four species and the possible extinction of one.

The study is published in Scientific Advances.

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