ROMNEY, W.Va. — An eastern milk snake in Kanawha County has become the second snake in West Virginia in the past 11 years to be confirmed with Snake Fungal disease. Division of Natural Resources officials worry the condition is spreading and poses a threat to snake populations.
“The clinical signs include crusty patches or scabs on the skin of the animal. The snake acts very lethargic,” said Kevin Oxenrider who oversees reptiles and amphibians in West Virginia.
The discovery is the first contemporary case. Oxenrider and other researchers now can trace the disease all the way back to 2006 in West Virginia when a rattlesnake, captured as part of a study suddenly, and mysteriously died. A clinical analysis of the snake at the time revealed no conclusions about its demise. However, a second test on a biopsy from the same snake a decade later, armed with more knowledge, revealed it was in fact the state’s first case of snake fungal disease.
“We know it’s been present since 2006. It went undetected from 2006 to 2016,” he explained. “Now we’ve had this animal recently turn up and test positive for the disease.”
The fungal infection appears to be prevalent throughout the northeastern United States. Where it originated and what causes it remain unknown. Studies on the condition are in the very early stages.
“It’s thought that it’s probably not native to North America, but it’s still very under studied,” Oxenrider explained. “It seems to be hardest on rattlesnakes in the northeast, but it can impact any species. A large number of snakes throughout the northeast have been contracting the symptoms with open wounds, scabs, and impacts to their dermis layer of skin which is causing them to die.”
Although a lot of attitudes about snakes are very negative, Oxenrider notes it’s a serious problem and could threaten the balance of the Eco-system.
“The reason people need to care about this, although people dislike snakes, they do serve a very important purpose,” he explained. “Snakes consume a lot of invertebrates or bus. They consume birds and a lot of small mammals. If we don’t have snakes you could have an over abundance of those species and that could be a problem.”
Snakes tend to cut down on numbers of mice, rats, chipmunks and other small rodents which are known to carry serious disease some of which can infect humans.
If you observe a snake which appears sick, Oxenrider hopes the public will be willing to leave it alone and take a picture to submit to the DNR so they can examine the evidence.
“A lot of times we’ve been getting people submitting pictures of snakes just shedding their skin. That can be easily confused with the clinical signs of snake fungal disease,” said Oxenrider. “That’s why we’re asking people to not just go ahead and kill it thinking it had snake fungal disease. It’s possible that it’s just shedding.”
You can contact your local DNR district office to inquire more or submit pictures of the stressed snakes.