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A snake fungal disease that is extremely fatal to multiple reptile species is spreading across the Eastern United States.

The disease could spread worldwide, even further than fungal infections in bats and amphibians that have wiped out entire populations, concludes a new study in the journal Science Advances.

“All snakes could become infected, or already are infected,” said Frank Burbrink, lead author of the new publication, a herpetologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “This really is the worst-case scenario.”

The fungus is caused by Ophidiomyces ophidiodiicola. It forms lesions that can cover the reptilian body. Molting can “cure” most cases – but it can prove fatal before that is accomplished. The infection also causes the snakes to spend more time basking in light or heat, meaning they are more susceptible to predators, according to the scientists.

The team from the AMNH, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Maryland looked at the documented 23 wild species in the eastern U.S., they write. Those species span from rattlesnakes to rat snakes, milk snakes, garter snakes, and vipers.

But since snakes are a “secretive species” and are difficult to catalogue in the wild, they wanted to gauge how far the infection may have spread among the total 98 species in the region.

Using an artificial neural network, they built a phylogenetic tree to see how the fungus may have been spread in various ecosystems and among the global population of more than 1,500 taxa.

Their conclusion: all snakes across the globe may eventually get infected.

“Surveillance should consider that all snake species and habitats likely harbor this pathogen,” they conclude. “Although it is not possible to predict which taxa are likely to be infected next, using phylogenetic relationships alone, it is possible that all 98 taxa in this region are susceptible to SFD.”

Jeffrey Lorch, a USGS microbiologist, said the spread of the fungal infections in bats and amphibians could provide an example of how far the snake disease could spread.

“Some of most devastating wildlife disease ever documented, such as white-nose syndrome in bats and chytridiomycosis in amphibians, are caused by fungal pathogens,” Lorch said. “These diseases have had such great impacts because they affect multiple species, and it now looks like the same is true of snake fungal disease.”

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