Well, I am back from Claxton Georgia and have great news: the newly formed Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival went off without a hitch! It seems safe to say that the local rattlesnake roundup is now a thing of the past and will now be replaced with a new fair that expresses a truly celebratory attitude towards nature and wildlife. More will be posted on this very soon (as soon as I can get the videos uploaded) but for now I have a follow up on the Chrysosporium fungus that is killing Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) near Carlyle Lake, Ill.
This is a lethal process that has been going on for at least three years but scientists are just beginning to truly understand it. So far no clear cause has yet been identified and most of what has been thrown around is speculation. Livescience.com compares the Chrysosporium to Geomyces destructans, which is more commonly known as the "White Nose Syndrome" that has been appearing in bat colonies across North America. While the two may be similar and are, as the Livescience article mentions, related, it is highly misleading to say that they are "not too distant relatives". The two belong to the same Phylum but nothing else. This is not the only inaccuracy being circulated by a reputable science website. Scientific American wrote that there was a similarity in the molecules of the infected rattlesnake to those found in a captive black rat snake and that this suggests the fungus spread to the wild rattlesnake population from released or escaped pets. According to Dr. Matthew Allender, the scientist in charge of investigating this outbreak, there is no evidence for such a speculation as of yet.
I recently E-mailed Dr. Allender an inquiry about this. His response was that there is currently no evidence whatsoever that this fungus originated in captivity or is related in any way to those in captive snakes. Furthermore, there is a lack of evidence that any human activity is behind the emergence of this particular pathogen. Of course all of this could change pending the discover of a smoking gun but until that happens these speculations remain just that. Dr. Allender also remarked upon the irresponsibility of making such inferences. This is something that all writers and bloggers must keep in mind when they report on such things. They are free to make such conjectures, as they should be, however, it is always important to make a clear differentiation between one's own hypothesis and that of the researcher one is reporting on.
Perry, Wayne. Live Science. (February 24, 2012). Mysterious Rattlesnake-Killing Infection Emerges. Retrieved March 16, 2012, from http://www.livescience.com/18634-endangered-rattlesnake-fungal-infection.html.
Platt, John R.(2012, Feb 23). Killer Fungus Targeting Endangered Rattlesnake. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/2012/02/23/killer-fungus-targeting-endangered-rattlesnakes.
Dr. Matt Allender (personal communication, Feb. 27, 2012).