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WV’s first known victim of snake fungal disease found

By RICK STEELHAMMER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In an “alarming discovery,” a snake in Kanawha County has tested positive for a deadly disease spreading throughout the eastern United States, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources announced Monday.

This photo shows an eastern milk snake found in Kanawha County with the crusty scales and abrasions that are symptoms of snake fungal disease.
(WVDNR submitted photo)

The young eastern milk snake was found by a Kanawha County property owner who recognized that the crusty scales and abrasions visible on its head could be symptoms of snake fungal disease.

“This is an alarming discovery,” said Kevin Oxenrider, a wildlife biologist at the DNR’s regional headquarters in Romney. “Snake fungal disease is not well understood, but dramatic declines in snake populations, particularly rattlesnake populations further north in the United States, have been linked to this disease. The DNR will remain vigilant and continue to monitor snake populations throughout the state to better assess the threat this disease poses.”

Oxenrider said it was “fortunate that the landowner recognized the clinical signs of snake fungal disease to look for, [but] it’s disturbing to know that we now have the first confirmed contemporary case of the disease in West Virginia.”

During the past several years, the disease’s presence has been confirmed in nearly 30 snake species in at least 16 U.S states and one Canadian province, including habitat as far north as Ontario and as far south as Louisiana.

The disease, which apparently is not harmful to humans, is particularly lethal to rattlesnakes. For some populations of rattlesnakes, particularly in the Northeast, mortality rates have ranged from 80 percent to “almost a complete die-off,” Oxenrider said.

“Affected snakes typically display swelling, crusty scabs or open wounds on the skin,” he said. “Clinical signs are typically seen on the head of the snake, but can occur anywhere on the body.”

A biopsy from a West Virginia timber rattler that presented similar symptoms back in 2006 was sent to a laboratory for analysis, but at that time, no cause could be pinpointed to explain the symptoms, Oxenrider said. “We sent a sample back for a re-examination in 2016, and from it, this time, they detected the fungus that causes the disease.”

Last spring, the DNR launched a program encouraging citizens to post data on their rattlesnake sightings to wildlife biologists as part of a DNR range and distribution study — partly to see if anyone came across snakes with symptoms of snake fungal disease, according to Oxenrider.

So far, citizen observers have posted data from 95 timber rattler sightings to the DNR website, “which keyed us in to some likely den sites where can look for further signs of the disease,” he said.

In some ways, snake fungal disease is similar to white nose syndrome, another fungi-borne disease that spread from east to west, decimating the nation’s bat population in recent years. But making connections between the two maladies would be premature, Oxenrider said, since “there’s still so much to learn about both diseases.”

While snakes in general and timber rattlers in particular are not always held in high public regard, people should be concerned about the disease’s presence in West Virginia due to the snake’s role in controlling populations of rodents, birds, invertebrates and even other snakes to help create a healthy ecosystem. DNR biologists urge anyone who captures snakes by hand or with the use of snake tongs or snake hooks to disinfect their equipment after use by washing it in bleach or other anti-fungal agents.

Anyone observing a snake displaying the clinical signs of snake fungal disease should call Kevin Oxenrider at 304-822-3551 or send email to [email protected]

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