By Michele S. Byers
Ever since the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, snakes have suffered from bad PR. Many folks flat-out hate and fear them. Even the evil Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series came back as a snake.
In reality, however, most snakes are peaceful creatures that avoid human contact. It might come as a great surprise to many ardent hikers of New Jersey’s mountains and Pine Barrens that, at some point, they have certainly walked within a few feet of a shy venomous snake.
Sadly, many people won’t learn of these snakes’ wondrous and complex behaviors, search for the unparalleled beauty of their camouflage or understand the remarkable adaptations and abilities that enable their survival.
New Jersey’s two venomous snakes, the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead, have been persecuted by four centuries of human habitation. Now a spreading fungal infection poses a new threat.
Chrysosporium, a common fungus, was initially reported some 15 years ago in reptiles in Canada. It has now reached New Jersey. This fungus was initially thought to target only rattlesnakes, but it was confirmed during the winter of 2010-11 in our state’s rare northern copperhead.
Since 2011, a state biologist and volunteers have observed multiple timber rattlesnakes, black rat snakes, black racers and eastern garter snakes with symptoms representative of the Chrysosporium fungal dermatitis. Preliminary tests on a black rat snake and a black racer showed the same fungus.
Symptoms include deformed, misshapen or damaged facial pit organs in rattlesnakes and copperheads, and necrotic facial tissue, facial lesions and deformed or damaged eyes, nostrils and mouths in all snake species. The infection eventually leads to emaciation and death.
The fungal spores are transferable within snake populations when snakes interact during mating, fighting or when they congregate to sun or den. In addition, it’s present in the air and soil. People can transmit the fungal spores on their boots, pants and daypacks.
Chrysosporium is naturally occurring, but it’s a mystery as to why snakes are suddenly unable to defend themselves from it.
Has something changed within the fungus to make it more harmful? Has something changed in the environment to weaken the snakes’ immune response? Has the pet trade or movement of wild animals by well-meaning reptile hobbyists, allowed different strains of the fungus to meet, accidentally breeding a more harmful fungal strain?
States are working on a grant to conduct further research, with the hope of finding a way to inhibit the impacts of the fungus and protect the snakes.
The New Jersey Endangered and Non-Game Species Program (ENSP) is working with conservation partners to identify potentially infected snakes and document their distribution, determine if all of New Jersey’s remaining 22 species of snakes are impacted and collect specimens for testing and potential treatment.
Snakes are only the latest members of New Jersey’s wildlife community to face dire health threats. Recently, white-nose fungus moved south from New York and New England, and has decimated our winged mammals – insect-eating bats. A 98-percent decline in our most abundant species, the Little Brown Bat, has been most devastating.
Next, the Rana virus and Chytrid fungus moved in from the south and west and has infected several of our diverse frogs and salamanders. The wildlife in this state we’re in cannot seem to catch a break!
It seems like every year, a new and serious threat to native biodiversity pops up, including threats to rare species whose habitats have been set aside as permanent conservation land.
To help, please do not capture or transport snakes or any non-game wildlife. If you see a snake that appears to have “something wrong with its head,” take a picture and a GPS location and contact the ENSP. So far, no documented occurrence has been noted in turtles, but the infection is known from other reptiles, including captive lizards.
To contact ENSP or learn about all of New Jersey’s remarkable reptiles, go to www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/herps_info.htm.
And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, go to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
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