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Fungus continues to plague Lake Erie water snakes

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    Lucy the Lake Erie water snake held by Kristin Stanford.

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    Kristin Stanford, left, with Lucy the Lake Erie water snake and Emma Scott, research assistant, right, with an eastern fox snake.

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Lucy the Lake Erie water snake held by Kristin Stanford.

The Blade/Tom Henry
Enlarge | Buy This Image

 PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — Although the nonvenomous Lake Erie water snake continues to be one of the Great Lakes region’s best comeback stories, a fungus in nature that can kill those and other snakes has scientists worried about their future.

Of 240 Lake Erie water snakes tested for the fungus in 2017, 180 of them — a whopping 75 percent — tested positive for it, said Kristin Stanford, an education and outreach coordinator for Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory. She began leading a campaign to save the unique water snake when she started working there 20 years ago, splitting her time between labs on South Bass Island, near Put-in-Bay, and on OSU’s Gibraltar Island.

WATCH: Lake Erie snakes susceptible to fungus

Ms. Stanford said she cannot estimate how many of the snakes carrying the fungus are in danger.

Many will carry on symptom-free or show few effects from it, she said.

But many others will develop snake fungal disease, a debilitating and often deadly condition that has been on the rise in the eastern half of the United States since being discovered in some New Hampshire timber rattlesnakes in 2006.

Snake fungal disease typically leads to scabs or crusty scales, premature separation of a snake’s outermost skin layer, white opaque cloudiness of the eyes, thickening of the skin, swelling of the face, skin ulcers, lesions, and other problems.

According to a research paper authored by 19 scientists from across America, the disease is the predominant cause of fungal skin infections imperiling wild snakes. It has drawn parallels to other conditions leading to the global losses of frogs and other amphibians, and millions of bats that have died from what’s known as white-nose syndrome.

The paper states that fungal diseases of wildlife “have caused some of the most important conservation crises in modern times.”

A Cornell University fact sheet also states the disease typically causes facial swelling in snakes, and that it can progress from the nasal cavity internally via the eyes, throat, and lungs, causing eye infections and pneumonia.

While providing an update on the species to several journalists at one of the lab’s South Bass Island buildings last Tuesday, Ms. Stanford said the “goals achieved in recovery are holding strong,” but that the fungus poses an “emerging threat.”

The disease is not at all limited to Lake Erie water snakes, which are unique because they are found only near the Lake Erie islands. Other snakes susceptible in this part of the country include the eastern fox snake, Emma Scott, research assistant, said.

The two women each held a snake as they spoke: Lucy, a Lake Erie water snake, and Jenny, an eastern fox snake.

The Cornell fact sheet said the fungus can be shed into the environment by infected snakes, where it can then be picked up by others — particularly snakes that share dens. The fungus also appears to be spread when people track contaminated soil in their clothing or shoes.

Taking samples looks almost like giving a snake a massage. Ms. Scott said it involves rubbing a cotton swab hard against the animal’s skin while another person is holding it. The swab is then sent off to a lab for analysis.

Ms. Stanford said her group’s research is ongoing and that snakes previously tagged are recovered and tested for the fungus.   

The first Lake Erie water snake known to get snake fungal disease was in 2009.

But even as far back as the 1980s, snake researchers noticed something they called “hibernation blisters.” It’s possible that might have been an early warning sign of the disease emerging, scientists have said.

Lake Erie water snakes were classified as a federally threatened species from Aug. 30, 1999, to Aug. 16, 2011, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Only 1,300 were believed to exist in 1984. About 1,500 to 2,000 existed when the snakes were formally listed as endangered in 1999.

Today, the population is estimated to be between 10,000 to 12,000, a figure that has stayed relatively stable the last seven years. They now eat mostly round gobies, an exotic from Eastern Europe that has established strong populations in Lake Erie, even with once-endangered birds such as cormorants feeding on them, too.

When the snake was taken off the endangered species list in 2011, it was only the 23rd species to have rebounded enough for delisting, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ms. Stanford attributes their demise to anxiety people have about snakes in general.

As the Lake Erie islands were becoming developed, people did virtually anything to kill snakes that crossed their paths.

They would dig them up during hibernation, pour gasoline on them and set fire to nests.

They used them for target practice. Many cut their heads off with shovels.

She said she’s aware many people are afraid of snakes. While the Lake Erie water snake bites, it is not venomous.

In the past, Ms. Stanford called mass killings of Lake Erie water snakes “one of the most well-reported instances of population decline through purposeful human persecution of any snake out there.”

The recovery was possible because of a well-orchestrated education and outreach campaign spearheaded by Ms. Stanford, who for years has been affectionately referred to as the “Island Snake Lady.”

She carried on an outreach campaign that had begun years earlier by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and one of her mentors, Richard King, a Northern Illinois University researcher. But her presence on cable TV, in the emerging social media networking, and via Old School forms of communication, such as flyers, public service announcements, and community speaking events, proved to be popular.

Her theme: Respect the snake.

Ms. Stanford’s big break came in 2006 when she was featured with television personality Mike Rowe on the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs reality TV show. That helped her get the irritable-yet-lovable Lake Erie water snake into the national limelight.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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