Fungus endangers Illinois rattlesnake population
Deadly fungus has potential to wipe out the native species.
Wednesday, March 7, 2012 - 15:12
A HEALTHY MUG: Killer fungus destroys the skin and head of this beautiful creature. (Photo: Mike Johnston/Flickr)
While I'm prone to screaming when I stumble upon them in the yard, I'm still a fan of snakes. They're beautiful, have amazing metabolic abilities and rid the world of rodents. Some are deadly, and their fantastic bioweaponry has earned them a nasty reputation throughout the world. But here in Illinois, those poisonous fangs can't combat the fungus that's killing our endangered rattlesnakes.
The eastern massasauga rattlesnake population has been in decline for years. With loss of habitat, including the wetlands where it thrives, and threats of eradication, this snake is a candidate for the federal endangered species list. While it ranges from Iowa to New York and Ontario, the massasauga is not a big traveler. Farms, housing tracts, roads and other obstacles have left the snake unable to venture between the wetlands it loves and the uplands it visits during part of the year. With the loss of population and inability to move around freely, massasaugas have declined into small communities, often very isolated from each other.
And now they have this nasty fungus to fight as well.
Although only a handful of cases have been identified in Illinois, each death is traumatic both in loss of a native species as well as the way the fungus destroys the animal. Known as Chrysosporium, this fungus attacks the skin first, causing lesions and malformations of the snake's head. "What is kind of scary about it is it loves the skin, but once it gets through the skin, it will invade muscle and bone and it is extremely destructive," said Matthew Allender, visiting wildlife veterinarian from the University of Illinois, who also headed the investigation.
Chrysosporium is not new to the snake world. Rather, it is known among retailers and owners who have captive animals, including bearded dragons. But the fungus was not seen in the wild, and veterinarians have found no way to combat the infection. Biologists in other states have reported similar deaths in their rattlesnakes, and most believe that we are just seeing the start of something that could have devastating long term effects.
Besides the potential to destroy our meager rattlesnake numbers, this fungus is reminiscent of the white-nose syndrome, which decimated the brown bat population in New York and throughout the Midwest.
Let's hope it doesn't come to that.