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From Issue #57 December 4, 2014

Rattle the Experts

Amateurs found it difficult to convince experts New England’s rattlesnakes were dying.

By Madeline Bodin Twitter icon 

Kevin McCurley sat quietly on the rocky ledge as the rattlesnake flicked its tongue at him, the turkey sandwich McCurley had been eating forgotten. Could this snake smell the thousands of snakes McCurley was carefully raising back in his 14,000-square-foot breeding facility and pet shop? Could it smell the love? Maybe. After a few flicks, the rattlesnake decided that McCurley was no threat, but was merely in its way. The snake crawled over McCurley’s knee and into the forest.

McCurley had driven hours to the spot in hope of seeing an animal he believes is one of nature’s most magnificent creations. He would have made the same effort to see a tiger or a great white shark in the wild. But for a New Englander, within a day’s drive only timber rattlesnakes offered that level of beauty, complexity, and — let’s face it — adrenalin rush.

Because they are nearly extinct, rattlesnakes in New England are treated far differently than elsewhere in the country. In Sweetwater, Texas, thousands of rattlesnakes are killed each spring in the nation’s largest rattlesnake roundup. And each spring there are more to kill. Timber rattlesnakes have been eradicated from Rhode Island and Maine. They are listed as endangered species on the state level in Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. In New England, the humans have won and the rattlesnakes have lost in a big way.

There are so few of them that if you are bitten by a rattlesnake in New England, you either went looking for trouble or are incredibly unlucky. You are, quite literally, more likely to be struck by lightning.

McCurley spent days watching rattlesnakes in the wild. He would focus on one location for a few seasons, and then move on. After he had gotten to know many of the region’s wild rattlesnakes by their distinctive markings and favorite basking spots, he noticed something. The snakes he knew were disappearing.

More to the point, he had last seen the missing snakes with the raw skin, deformed scales, and inflamed bumps he recognized as a fungal infection. He knew what a similar infection would do to the snakes he bred for his living; he knew how fragile the rattlesnakes’ hold on New England was, where this disease would have a disproportionate effect on the population.

McCurley had learned to be secretive while watching rattlesnakes. Wildlife biologists don’t welcome amateurs who may harm the snakes or themselves. But McCurley had to tell someone about the fungus.

A hidden disappearance

McCurley doesn’t have to drive hours and wait patiently to see a rattlesnake. He owns several of them, kept under lock and key at his New Hampshire business, New England Reptile Distributors. His stock breed is the ball python, a snake species often recommended to people new to keeping pet snakes. He’s written a book the size of a cinderblock about these snakes; specifically, how to tease out the subtlest aspects of their genes to create snakes in colors and patterns never seen in nature.

McCurley has a passion for pythons, but his devotion to rattlesnakes comes from a different place. It seems crass to point out that the cheapest of McCurley’s ball pythons sells for twice the going rate of a timber rattlesnake. Yet when McCurley flays his flying-V guitar as the lead singer and lead guitarist in his very own thrash metal band, the band is not called Python. He does his thrashing under the name of the scientific genus for the timber rattlesnake, Crotalus.

McCurley has handled thousands of snakes, including a 22-foot reticulated python. He needs to make them happy so they will make babies for him. He knows timber rattlesnakes as a passive species that will do anything to avoid a fight. “That was not me doing anything magical,” he says of his encounter with the wild rattlesnake. It was a knack he gained with years of daily contact with lots of snakes.

McCurley wasn’t sure where to report a fungal infection in rattlesnakes, but one name kept coming up as the leading expert in rattlesnakes in the Northeast. He phoned the expert at home. “Hibernation blisters,” the expert replied. Commonly seen. Nothing to worry about.

McCurley insisted that it was a problem. Snakes were disappearing. The expert was not impressed. McCurley had no data.

McCurley took photos, contacted other experts, put the photos on his Web site, and added a bit about the mysterious threat to rattlesnakes to the talks that he gave to eager audiences at pet reptile conventions. Humans have always had it in for rattlesnakes, McCurley would tell the crowd, but humans had finally met their match when it came to killing rattlesnakes. “This fungus is the ultimate snake hunter.”

Show us the fungus

A pastry chef named James Condon had similar pictures of infected rattlesnakes in Massachusetts, from a location just outside of Boston. He found McCurley’s photo gallery online and posted his own photos there. The gray ponytail that trailed down Condon’s back matched McCurley’s reddish one in length. Condon is quick to say that while their passion for rattlesnakes makes the pair seem identical, with all due respect, he would never pick up a rattlesnake bare-handed as McCurley has done, nor let a rattlesnake crawl over him.

McCurley and Condon continued reaching out to experts by email and phone and cornering them at meetings. Eventually they broke through. A veterinarian agreed to go out in the field with McCurley. A rattlesnake expert in Appalachia was interested. A rattlesnake venom expert treated McCurley with respect after one of McCurley’s snake talks. A state biologist in Massachusetts began to rely on Condon as a rattlesnake resource. State biologists in New Hampshire and Vermont looked for, and found, evidence of disease in their states’ rattlesnakes.

Still, the men say, there were doubters. They were invited to speak about the rattlesnake fungus at an informal meeting of snake biologists, but were met with crossed arms and hard stares. They still didn’t have data.

Condon was so frustrated with one doubter that he presented the researcher with a freshly fungus-killed rattlesnake. Not only was that a violation of the state’s endangered species law, but scientists had implanted the snake with a radio transponder. Condon got off with a small fine only because the state biologist pleaded his case, knowing his intentions were good.

In December 2011, the scientific journal Emerging Infectious Diseases published a letter to the editor from University of Illinois biologist Matthew Allender describing a fungal disease of eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, a species that the federal government has put on a waiting list for protection. The letter said that a particular fungus that was difficult to grow in the lab was found on all the diseased snakes.

At first McCurley and Condon were astounded by the seeming ease with which the scientist had drawn attention to his own rattlesnake problem. Then they realized that the letter held the solution to their own. By following its leads, they found that Jeffrey Lorch, a research associate at the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, was the guy who could find the tricky snake-killing fungus when few others could.

They began sending Lorch samples from other fungus-infected snake species they found near the diseased rattlesnakes. As an endangered species, the rattlesnakes were untouchable, even when dead. Sending the samples from New Hampshire to Wisconsin overnight in a cooler with dry ice cost $90 a pop. McCurley charged it to his business.

Shedding light on a quiet killer

After the journal letter, Lorch received samples from biologists all over the country. He retested diseased snakes stored in the National Wildlife Health Lab’s archives. Today, the fungus is known as Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola and the disease as “snake fungal disease,” since it infects several species. The rattlesnake’s plight has drawn media attention ranging from local television news stations around the country to The Washington Post.

In 2013, a group of nine states was awarded a half-million dollar federal grant for a two-year study of snake fungal disease. Condon has been hired as a field assistant to a graduate student for the study.

McCurley and Condon know they have won, but the victory feels hollow to them. They expected a bigger splash for their contribution, even though they can’t put their finger on what they think should have happened. They’re thanked during Lorch’s webinar on snake fungal disease for the US Fish and Wildlife Service seen by biologists across the country. Their names appear in every report on snake fungal disease because they provided the photos that illustrate them. They don’t fully accept that the recognition for contributing to a scientific discovery is a feeble thing compared to the appreciation lapped up by pastry chefs, leading ball python breeders, or the leaders of even the most obscure heavy metal bands.

But they are also disappointed that their victory in getting the scientific community to acknowledge the snakes’ fungal infections has not also been a victory for rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes in New England are still poached for the pet trade and killed by terrified people in self-defense. Forest growth continues to encroach on and thus shade the places where they bask; while rattlesnakes exist almost solely in protected areas, humanity crowds ever closer. The fungus still kills them.

McCurley and Condon are flummoxed by how slowly science works. They are baffled by the time and money being spent researching whether toxic metals in the environment or an immune system disorder are at the root of the snakes’ deaths.

They thought there would be a cure, but for wildlife diseases there rarely are. Unless it is a disease that harms humans too, like rabies or plague, government agencies typically let nature take its course. Lorch says that wildlife managers are more aggressive when they know the disease has been introduced to an ecosystem by humans. The very preliminary work on snake fungal disease suggests it was not.

These days, McCurley’s hair is short. He no longer picks up rattlesnakes with just his hands. He uses a snake hook even when taking one of his own captive rattlers out of its locked cage. He’s worked too hard for rattlesnake conservation, he says. “I don’t want to be that guy — the guy who gets rattlesnakes killed because he got bit.”

McCurley wonders what he’s actually been fighting against all these years — a snake fungus, the academic establishment, or a fundamental fear of snakes that is lodged in the most reptilian parts of our own brains. That fear demands that we kill, not protect, an integral part of the natural environment. It may be impossible to overcome.

“I hear the New England cottontail is in trouble,” McCurley says wryly. “Next time, I’ll try to save that instead. Everybody loves bunnies.”

Too bad it’s a lousy name for a heavy metal band.

Photos courtesy of Kevin McCurley.

Vermont-based writer Madeline Bodin writes about our relationship with the natural world, including articles about the wood in baseball bats and the resurrection of a butterfly species, for publications such as the Boston Globe, Discover, Wildflower, and Woodland.

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