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New clues to a disease affecting Michigan rattlesnakes

We have a rattlesnake in Michigan called the eastern massasauga. It’s listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

One of the threats it’s facing is a disease called snake fungal disease, and it can kill the snakes. 

Researchers have figured out some clues about how the pathogen affects the snakes.

Dr. Matt Allender is a veterinarian, and a assistant professor at the University of Illinois. He also directs the Wildlife Epidemiology Lab.

"Snake fungal disease is a fungal pathogen, an emerging disease similar to white-nose syndrome in bats or chytrid infection in frogs throughout the world," he says. "About ten years ago, eastern massasaugas were one of the first species that was identified with skin lesions that would affect their face, primarily."

He says snake fungal disease causes eye and skin infections, and sometimes the lesions are subtle.

"Some of the clues as to what’s causing the death or decline in these animals with subtle lesions is still quite a mystery," says Allender. "And so we’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out how is this a threat and why is this fungal pathogen now causing issues in not just endangered rattlesnakes like the eastern massasauga but in many other species of snakes across North America."

In a new study, Allender and his colleagues looked at the microbial community living on the snakes’ skin, called the microbiome.

They found the pathogen altered the snakes’ microbiome.

"This is important, because for an emerging disease we want to know number one: what is the mechanism that leads to infection and then how can we change management or monitor management so that we can improve conservation efforts," he says.

He says with the knowledge that the fungal pathogen Ophidiomyces disrupts the snakes' microbiome, they can now start to design studies that look at ways to minimize the impact of this pathogen on the eastern massasauga.

Allender says scientists are learning more about how important the microbiome is for human and animal health.

"I think that the role of the microbiome is really, while quite a bit’s known, it’s still in its infancy. There are lots of indications in people and in frogs and in bumblebees that the composition and the richness of microbes both fungal and bacterial on the skin, in the gut, in the lungs of these animals prevents or helps to reduce the impact of severe diseases," he says.

"We’re starting to see patterns that might be emerging that help us to explain these fungal infections and the changes in the microbiome," says Allender.

You can listen to the interview with Dr. Allender above, and learn more about his work on Twitter @WildlifeEpiLab.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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