CARMEL, CA — It’s an increasingly alarming wildlife mystery. Scientists are monitoring an emerging infectious fungus that is horribly disfiguring and killing snakes across the country. The snake fungal disease has spread in Europe, Asia and the eastern United States. It’s also been found as far west as California.
Wildlife veterinarians were looking for diseased snakes on a hot summer day in the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountains in California's Carmel Valley.
“We're looking for snakes to do health assessments and test for an emerging fungal disease called snake fungal disease,” said Dr. Matt Allender, a clinical veterinarian with the Chicago Zoological Society and director of the University of Illinois’ Wildlife Epidemiology Lab.
“We initially diagnosed it in a snake in 2009 in Illinois. And since that point, it's been found in over 35 states in the U.S. And right now, California is right on the front lines of where that emergence is occurring,” said Allender.
With many snake populations already in decline, scientists worry the disease could entirely wipe out certain species in some locations.
“Things like rattlesnakes, things like water. Snakes are much more susceptible, and those animals are highly endangered in certain areas of the range,” said Allender.
It can be highly fatal – up to 90% in specific rattlesnake populations.
The disease itself manifests as skin lesions that are spread by contaminated habitats or direct contact.
“It was swelling of the head that was really disfiguring to the point where the fungus would invade the eye and we'd start to get granulomas and white cheesy material,” said Allender.
Allender works with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which began monitoring the disease after a case was discovered in California in 2019.
“We got really concerned because it was a California Kingsnake. It did not look good,” said Dr. Deana Clifford.
Clifford, a senior veterinarian at the wildlife health lab with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said so far, the state has seen two confirmed cases.
“We're feeling better about our situation. But we're at that beginning stage of characterizing the disease,” she said. “Where is it? Who is infected? And how many animals are infected?”
“We found a snake earlier today; it was too fast for us cause it’s kind of warm,” said Raquel Elander, a wildlife scientific aide with California’s Wildlife Health Laboratory.
For the last year, Elander has been collecting samples throughout the state.
“I'll do a physical examination, so examine it for any lesions that might be associated with, you know, health issues, and I'll take a swab sample," Elander said.
Allender said while there is no threat to domestic pets, snakes play a vital role in the biodiversity of an ecosystem.
“They have human health benefits in that snakes can take out a rodent population that can support up to 3,400 ticks in a year, which reduces the tick-borne diseases," Allender said.
It’s why he says the work they’re doing here in the foothills is so pressing.
“Trying to find ways in order to identify that fungus so that we can go in and intervene and save this biodiversity is critically important,” he said.