A Forked Road in Snake Conservation: Is Snake Fungal Disease a Threat to Snakes?

Have you ever seen a SSSSSSSnake ssssslither through the grass in Ontario?

Rachel Dillon, a student in the Environmental Life Science Program at Trent University sssssssure has!

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Rachel, with an Eastern Foxsnake that she tracked for 2 years. Photo by: Courtney Butler

After studying zoology, she developed a passion for these vertebrates – and discovered there are diseases affecting snakes in the province.

An infection called “Snake Fungal Disease” ( Ophidiomycosis ) threatens snakes. It causes skin lesions and in some cases: death.

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Eastern Foxsnake with severe lesions from ophidiomycosis. Snakes that looked this poorly were rare in her study. Photo by: Rachel Dillon

Rachel learned that the Snake Fungal Disease is considered a conservation crisis by many scientists and media outlets alike. She wanted to dig deeper to how much of a crisis it really is by studying snake populations.

Through her research, she explored:

  • Seasonal dynamics of Snake Fungal Disease 
  • The effects of Snake Fungal Disease on the fitness of wild snakes

To find out more about the disease, Rachel studied a population of Eastern Foxsnakes in Southern Ontario.

The Eastern Foxsnake is the 2nd largest snake in Ontario.

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*Rachel often has to look UP to find an Eastern Foxsnake: they’re great climbers! Photo by: Kyle Ritchie*

Unfortunately, it is endangered due to urban development and habitat fragmentation.

Rachel’s research is one of the first projects that confirmed Snake Fungal Disease in Ontario.

By implanting tracking devices in Eastern Foxsnakes for over 2 years, she was able to follow specific snakes: some with Snake Fungal Disease and some without. Through swampy Lake Erie wetlands, Oak Savannah’s, Vine-Filled Forests, and even cottagers’ backyards. Rachel witnessed some amazing behaviours!

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This is how she tracks Eastern Foxsnakes, using radio-telemetry. She located the snakes twice a week to collect data. Photo by: Stephanie Munro

Most Eastern Foxsnakes were behaving normally, like eating birds, mating, laying eggs, swimming and diving – but some were ravaged by Snake Fungal Disease. Thankfully, overtime, Rachel noticed most snakes won the fight against the disease. 

Rachel’s results gave her, and other scientists, hope that Snake Fungal Disease could be managed. There is a strong seasonal cycle that’s partly linked to Eastern Foxsnakes overwintering behaviour. Even if a snake contracts the disease, they behave similarly to one’s without it – which means it is a more normal disease than previously thought.

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This is how Rachel swabbed snakes to test for ophidiomycosis. The swabs get sent to a lab in Guelph where a qPCR test can detect fungal spores, if they are present. Photo by: Courtney Butler

Rachel’s research contradicts the idea that Snake Fungal disease is a conservation crisis. 

In the midst of Earth’s 6th Mass Extinction Event, her results show that with our climate warming and urbanization increasing – these snakes are already in a lot of trouble – but that Snake Fungal Disease isn’t necessarily a major threat…at least not yet.

The snakes can sssssssuccessfully sssssleep knowing their energies can be focused on fighting larger threats…like climate change and habitat loss.

Here is what Rachel has to say about her research & her Trent University experience:

“Snakes are fascinating and beautiful creatures that deserve our respect. Snakes need protection from threats like roads, poaching, and habitat destruction. Trent University has been an amazing platform for my research, with its unique connection with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) and strong sustainability messages. My graduate student experience has been made so memorable, much in part to the passionate and inspiring individuals I have met through the Trent community.’

TENTU

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