Snake fungal disease confirmed in Europe for first time

By Dana Kobilinsky

A healthy juvenile grass snake slithers along the ground in England. ©Mihai Leu

A team of researchers has documented the first detection of the fungus responsible for snake fungal disease in wild snakes in Europe. They wrote about their findings in a study published in June in Scientific Reports. The fungus they found is novel strain of Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, based on genetic studies and culture characteristics, they reported, so there is no evidence that it has been introduced to Europe from North America, where snake fungal disease has decimated snake populations.

The discovery began with a female grass snake (Natrix natrix) with skin lesions that veterinarians from the Zoological Society of London examined in 2015. The team used a combination of molecular, microbiological and microscopic tests to detect Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, the fungus that’s responsible for snake fungal disease. The disease is known to affect over 20 different species of wild snakes in the eastern and Midwestern parts of the United States and was first recognized in 2006.

“Because we were aware of the investigation and concerns about snake fungal disease in North America, it was on our radar as a condition to look for,” said Becki Lawson, a wildlife veterinarian at the Zoological Society of London and a coauthor of the study.

After initial discovery of the skin lesions in the grass snake, Lawson and her colleagues examined samples of wild snakes collected between 2010 and 2016 in Great Britain as well as the Czech Republic, where a single skin shed from a dice snake (Natrix tessellata) was identified as having evidence of sores consistent with the disease.

The team determined the disease was present in several samples of grass snakes studied in Great Britain as well as the single dice snake in the Czech Republic.

Lawson said she hopes to continue monitoring the disease to understand its significance to wild snake health and to determine whether it is impacting adversely at a population level leading to declines. Great Britain has just three native snake species and it remains unknown whether the adder (Vipera berus) and smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) are also susceptible to the condition.

Because the European fungus is genetically novel, Lawson said, the origin of the disease remains unclear and requires further investigation.

“Through an international team effort, we hope to learn about the origin and impact of snake fungal disease. We want to know whether or not there’s evidence of the fungus being introduced historically or if it’s a native,” Lawson said. Regardless of where the fungus originated, she said, environmental factors, such as climate, may affect the likelihood of the disease occurring.

Lawson said she recommends that biosecurity measures are adopted as a routine by owners of captive snakes, ecological consultants and herpetologists, to safeguard wild and captive snake health.

Dana KobilinskyDana Kobilinsky is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at dkobilinsky@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article. You can follow her on Twitter at @DanaKobi.

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