State News

Endangered Vt. timber rattlers face deadly fungal disease

Courtesy of Tom Rogers, Vt Fish & Wildlife

Vermont’s wildlife biologists are watching endangered timber rattlesnakes for signs they’ve been stricken with a newly discovered infection called “snake fungal disease.”

Vermont conservationists are battling a new obstacle in the effort to conserve the state’s timber rattlesnakes and other snake species–a recently discovered infection referred to simply as “snake fungal disease.”

Similar to white-nose syndrome in bats, the disease appears as white to brown blisters on the snake’s face. Snake fungal disease, thought to be causing declines in timber rattlesnake populations in neighboring New Hampshire and Massachusetts, is now appearing in Vermont.

Doug Blodgett, wildlife biologist for Vermont Fish & Wildlife, says that snake fungal disease was first discovered among Vermont’s rattlesnake population in 2012 and has been found in both of Vermont’s distinct rattlesnake populations.

While timber rattlesnakes in Vermont have died after contracting snake fungal disease, scientists don’t know yet the extent of the threat or whether it will cause the state-endangered populations to decline even further. The disease is also suspected to have infected several other snake species in Vermont, including Eastern rat snakes and common milk snakes.

“We’re cautiously monitoring this disease among Vermont’s snakes and are watching for any signs that our populations are in decline,” said Blodgett. “Fortunately we have several partners in this effort with whom we are working closely.”

Jim Andrews, who heads up the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, also keeps close tabs on snake sightings by members of the public. Additionally, Blodgett notes, the Nature Conservancy in Vermont has made a concerted effort to save land that is important to the survival of these species.

Much of the funding for Blodgett’s work on snakes in Vermont was provided by The Orianne Society, a nonprofit working to conserve amphibians and reptiles.

“Many people ask why we need to save rattlesnakes at all,” said Blodgett. “They’ve been here for thousands [of years] and play a vital role in our ecosystem. They are the original Vermonters and are a symbol of the wildness that remains in our state.”

Blodgett points out that contrary to popular belief, people are actually safer with timber rattlers and other snakes in the woods. “Despite our wariness of them, snakes play a vital role in our ecosystem, keeping rodent populations in check. Given the concerns around Lyme disease, and deer ticks’ preferred host species—the white-footed mouse—snakes are more important to our health than we realize.”

The medical community is also exploring medicinal benefits that can be extracted from snake venom, Blodgett noted.

Snake fungal disease and white-nose syndrome are just two of many emergent infectious wildlife diseases that biologists in Vermont are monitoring. And with changing weather patterns, scientists anticipate an increase in new diseases to threaten wildlife in the future.

“Infectious diseases such as snake fungal disease and white-nosed syndrome can pose a serious threat to wildlife all over the world,” said Blodgett. “The rapid spread of emerging infectious diseases appears to be a side-effect of an increasingly globalized world in which humans can move an infected animal or contaminated object as fast as a plane can fly. The emergence of many infectious wildlife diseases are also exacerbated by a warming climate and changing weather patterns.”

For now, Blodgett and his partners are working to conserve these important species and the habitats that support them.

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