A fungal infection caused by a pathogen known as Ophidiomyces ophidiodiicola is threatening snakes all across the world, according to a new study published in Scientific Advances.
This discovery comes from scientists at the American Museum of Natural History, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Maryland, who found that snake fungal disease (SFD) can infect almost any species of snake regardless of genetic predispositions, physical characteristics, or habitat. That puts every species on Earth at risk.
“This really is the worst-case scenario,” said lead author Frank Burbrink, an associate curator at the American Museum of Natural History, according to USA Today. “Our study suggests that first responders shouldn’t just be looking for certain types of snakes that have this disease, but at the whole community. All snakes could become infected, or already are infected.”
Once O. ophidiodiicola infects snakes, it causes their skin to swell and creates crusts and nodules on their scales that typically lead to death. While researchers are not sure how it is transmitted, they believe it likely spread when snakes rub against each other or when they move through a contaminated environment.
Currently, the disease affects 23 U.S. snake species — including rat snakes, milk snakes, and garter snakes — and it is already causing population declines in eastern states. It has been found in three European species as well.
The reason the disease is so concerning is because it is hard to predict how far it has spread. The team in the study used a neural network to gather data on snakes with SFD and found that it is randomly dispersed. As a result, every species could potentially contract it.
Losing snakes could harm many ecosystems around the world. They are key predators, and without them, many regions could become unbalanced. Researchers hope to expand on this study by taking a closer look at the disease in order to see how and when it can be treated.
“We need to know more about the extent of the disease,” Burbrink told Gizmodo. “How many species has it infected? Is mortality as a high across all infected species and populations? And where globally is this occurring? Also, we need to know more about disease transmission and if humans are exacerbating the spread and effects. So, lots more people monitoring this in the field and in research collections and laboratories.”