NJ Audubon Assisting with Snake Fugal Disease Surveys

New Jersey Audubon’s Stewardship Department is working with the New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) in a multi-state, multi-organization survey effort to determine the distribution and extent of the Snake Fungal Disease (SFD).  SFD is an emerging disease in certain populations of wild snakes and is associated with the soil fungus, Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola (Oo) and as its name implies, is only known to afflict snakes. 

black racer with SFD in NJ(PARKE)SFD has become a point of discussion and concern among the scientific community, especially after significant declines in localized snake populations across the Midwest and Eastern United States, had been discovered as a result of infection(s) confirmed to be associated with this fungus.  In New Jersey several snake species, including Timber Rattlesnake, Corn Snake, Pine Snake, Black Rat Snake, and Black Racer, have been confirmed with SFD.

Although it remains unclear as to whether or not this fungus is native to our environment, we are certain that over the past decade throughout the northeast it has impacted native snakes forcing them to spend more time basking (and less foraging) and in some cases, one documented in New Jersey, causing mortality,” said Kris Schantz, Principal Zoologist with New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.  “While New Jersey has documented only one SFD-related death, research in our state has been limited and therefore, we are not certain of SFD's impact on our snakes. Currently, SFD has been confirmed in snake populations within Ocean, Burlington, Passaic and Bergen Counties and is suspected to be in Warren and Sussex Counties,” added Schantz.

Researchers have identified that the fungus, O. ophiodiicola, survives by eating keratin, the substance out of which snaketimber rattlesnake with SFD (PARKE) scales, (and human fingernails) are made.  According to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, “The most consistent clinical signs of SFD include scabs or crusty scales, subcutaneous nodules, premature separation of the outermost layer of the skin (stratum corneum) from the underlying skin (or abnormal molting), white opaque cloudiness of the eyes (not associated with molting), or localized thickening or crusting of the skin (hyperkeratosis). Skin ulcers, swelling of the face, and nodules in the deeper tissues of the head have also been documented. Clinical signs of SFD and disease severity may vary by snake species.”  In some cases it has been documented to affect the snake’s ability to obtain prey and can lead to malnutrition and die of starvation.  Additionally SFD can lead a snake to exhibit behaviors that, in the wild, could cause the snake to spend more time in open areas to bask and thus become more exposed to predation.

Aside from the symptoms, little else is known about the condition, but researchers are now investigating how snakes catch it, fight it and die from it.  Although, some snakes have died in association with SFD, it is not yet known what the population-level impacts of the disease are.  This is mainly because of the solitary and cryptic nature of snakes.  Additionally there is a lack of any long-term monitoring data.  According to USGS, while fungal infections were occasionally reported in wild snakes prior to 2006, it is only in recent years that there has been such a significant increase in infected snakes across a much wider range than was originally reported, bringing the issue to the forefront and taking immediate action.

milk snake with SFD(PARKE)In an effort to obtain better data on SFD in New Jersey, the NJ Audubon’s Stewardship Department has begun working with ENSP this year to systematically survey documented den, basking and gestation/birthing habitats in northern New Jersey, for snakes exhibiting symptoms associated with SFD, record such information and capture symptomatic snakes for testing and in some cases treatment.

Snakes are a critically important part of a healthy ecosystem basically helping to control prey items such as rodents, not to mention that they are prey items themselves for a variety of animals,” said John Parke, Project Stewardship Director of NJ Audubon.  “SFD can be devastating when you consider how other fungal infections have taken significant tolls on other species such as bats with white-nose syndrome and salamanders and frogs with the chytrid fungus. The problem here is since most snakes are secretive and some hibernate in communal dens that are not accessible, you could have a die-off and not know it.

If you should be lucky enough to come across any snake in the wild, do not approach it or attempt to handle it.   However if you do encounter a snake with signs consistent with SFD, NJA does encourage you to take a photo of the snake (from a distance) and note the location of the encounter and send it to NJDFW-ENSP Principal Zoologist Kris Schantz at Kris.Schantz@dep.nj.gov

Photos by John Parke