Missouri reptile expert warns of fungus spreading among snake species


A timber rattlesnake found in Missouri with discoloration on the chin. This snake tested positive for snake fungal disease. (Photo: Jeff Briggler/Missouri Department of Conservation.)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This year, four different species of snakes contracted a fungal skin disease in Missouri that left their faces swollen, disfigured, and scaly.

Jeff Briggler, herpetologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the positive caseload for snakes in the state is low, but residents should still be watchful.

“If someone is seeing a bunch of dead snakes or a bunch of snakes with all kinds of signs of it, those are more serious and we need to be aware of it,” he said.

Briggler said the state has been actively testing and tracing O. ophiodiicola fungus, or snake fungal disease, in different reptiles for about seven years. He said nearly 50% of positive cases found in Missouri involve endangered timber rattlesnakes. 

“We used to call it ‘blister sores’ or ‘skin rot,’” he said. “We always thought it was just due to snakes being in moist environments.”

He said experts now know it to be an infectious fungus marked by skin lesions that disfigure a reptile’s head, sometimes preventing it from being able to even eat. He said the fungus is not passable to humans, but is easily passed from snake-to-snake, putting species’ that hibernate together at the biggest risk of contracting it. 

“They get crusty swelling, discoloring of their skin,” Briggler said. “A lot of times, it’s around the face, lips, or belly.”

Though manageable if contracted at an early age, Briggler said the fungus can pose deadly risks to older snakes and those that shed their skin less frequently.

“There’s behaviors in these animals that probably help stop the progression of this fungus,” he said. “If they bask in the sun, heat up their body, shed their skin, that can help remove the fungus from the skin.”

A western rattlesnake found in Missouri with discoloration of the head. This snake tested positive for snake fungal disease. (Photo: Jeff Briggler/Missouri Department of Conservation.)

In 2006, researchers at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department discovered brown, crusty blisters on the necks and faces of endangered timber rattlesnakes, as well as the carcass of a rattler, supposedly dead due to a fungal infection of the mouth, according to a 2011 study.

Two years later, researchers in Illinois found three eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, deceased with their faces disfigured and puffy. The researchers likened their appearances to that of a reptile that had been run over by cars, according to an article published by National Geographic.

Briggler said it’s important for the public to alert the state of any dead snakes found with possible symptoms because experts are actively monitoring their immunity to the disease. 

“Like anything, younger snakes, once they emerge, if they had this, they’re immune systems will stop it from progressing,” he said. “As things get older, your immune systems are weakened so you have a higher chance of it being fatal to you.”

If dead, disfigured snakes start popping up around the state, Briggler said it is possible endangered species’ could face extinction.

“It’s not like everybody sees a snake everyday,” he said. “Some people are so afraid of snakes that they’re not willing to pick them up and look at them either.”

If an individual finds a snake they suspect of carrying fungal snake disease, they can photograph it and forward it to the state for identification.

If you or someone you know has located a snake suspected of carrying fungal snake disease, please email the Missouri Department of Conservation’s herpetologist, Jeff Briggler, at jeff.briggler@mdc.mo.gov.

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