Photo sparks reptile research
Linda Paetow received a photo of an Eastern Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) from a concerned citizen. The snake’s nose and part of its face was disfigured, swollen and covered with scabs. The snake in the photo was found in the province of Quebec.
Ms. Paetow is Curator of Reptiles, Amphibians and Fish at the Ecomuseum Zoo near Montreal. The Ecomuseum has a strong program of outreach and education. Its research and conservation activities are aimed at protecting reptiles and amphibians in southern Quebec, an expertise developed by the zoo’s team since its creation.
Ms. Paetow called a colleague, Bruce Pauli, in the Wildlife and Landscape Science Directorate at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), and they discussed the possibility that the snake in the photo was afflicted by snake fungal disease, which is caused by a fungal pathogen called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola (Oo).
Recently reported in snakes from the northern New York State area, the disease caused by this fungus can be fatal to 50 per cent of infected animals. They were concerned the fungus could now be present in Quebec. To follow up, Ms. Paetow and Mr. Pauli contacted Dr. Matt Allender, a researcher at the University of Illinois who has an ongoing research-and-surveillance program on snake fungal disease.
Dr. Allender agreed that the photo could be of an infected animal and therefore that the disease could have spread northward. With the help of Sébastien Rouleau, the Ecomuseum Zoo’s Coordinator of Research and Conservation, the team established a snake fungal disease surveillance program around Montreal. The goals of this program would be to try to determine whether or not Oo has become established in southern Quebec, to estimate the incidence of the disease there and to provide hypotheses as to why Oo might have moved northward.
Building on capacity and expertise developed by ECCC under the Strategic Technology Applications of Genomics in the Environment (STAGE) program, the team was able to establish a new regional “node” in Dr. Allender’s ongoing surveillance program of Oo incidence in northeastern North America. Mr. Rouleau, and a science student intern hired by the Ecomuseum Zoo, took skin swab samples from various species of snakes to send to Dr. Allender’s laboratory for genomic testing.
One particular species of concern for the team is Dekay’s Brownsnake (Storeria dekayi), which already has a very limited distribution in southern Quebec and is already threatened by habitat loss.
An additional objective of this collaborative effort is to provide the student intern with valuable training in the field of genomics, wildlife research and conservation science.
At the end of the field season, the samples collected in southern Québec, as well as from Dr. Allender’s own sampling areas, will be analyzed and the data obtained will be added to Dr. Allender’s database of the incidence of snake fungal disease in northeastern North America.
“With just a little financial support, genomic science can serve as a powerful tool in the field of disease research,” said Mr. Pauli. “The science can help us seek answers to many questions, such as why is this disease emerging now? Is its emergence related to climate change and are humans playing a direct role in its spread? Can we do anything to stop the disease from spreading further?”
Overall, the combination of a concerned citizen’s photo, a group of dedicated students and scientists, and a little bit of financial support can spur great action. When the data are analyzed, the hope is to understand much more about the threat of snake fungal disease in the United States and Canada.
Sébastien Rouleau, Ecomuseum Zoo’s Coordinator of Research and Conservation, in the field with student Philippe Lamarre taking skin swab samples from various species of snakes to send to Dr. Matt Allender’s laboratory for genomic testing.
Swabbing for DNA is a first step in wildlife genomics research. Researchers are using genomics to learn more about the incidence of snake fungal disease to protect species at risk like this Dekay’s Brownsnake.
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