Students research snakes in Memorial Park, search for emerging disease

May 2, 2018
Brandi Bahr, Sarah Bauer, Hanna Tydrich, Hannah Meister
Snake
Amanda Erlandson
Holding snake

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – A group of University of Wisconsin-Platteville biology students are researching snakes in UW-Platteville’s Memorial Park to search for signs of an emerging snake fungal disease that could pose a major threat to ecosystems.

Amanda Erlandson, a senior biology major from Bradley, Illinois, began her involvement in the research in fall 2017, when she was searching for a senior thesis project that would bring her outside of the classroom.

“I really prefer to do out of classroom experiences, because I’m more of a hands-on learner,” said Erlandson. She, along with four other students, teamed up with Dr. John Peterson, assistant professor of biology at UW-Platteville, to conduct the research.

The students set up 125 boards – made of plywood, tin and asphalt – throughout Memorial Park to coax the snakes into taking cover under them. The most likely snake species the students expect to find include milksnakes, garter snakes and DeKay’s brownsnakes. Once the students capture a snake, they record the type of cover board it was under and its species, weight and measurement. They then look for visible signs of the fungal disease, which can include skin abnormalities such as blisters, pustules or lesions. Regardless of whether there are any visible signs, the students swab the snake around its face. The samples are then sent to University of Illinois to be tested for the fungal disease.

The disease, which is not transmittable to humans, has been primarily found in the eastern half of the United States. While snakes can die from the infection itself, they also often die as a result of the symptoms, which cause behavioral changes.

“The fungal disease will wake the snakes up from hibernation earlier and cause them to exhibit weird behaviors, such as basking in the middle of winter,” explained Erlandson. “This causes them to freeze or starve to death. The disease also affects the snout and eye area, and the snakes could become blind and unable to locate any food around them or see predators.”

According to Erlandson, the fungal disease has a high mortality rate and could be as devastating to the snake population as white nose syndrome has been to the bat population. This could have severe implications on the ecosystem.

“When you read a case study in class about a project and how it went wrong, it tells you what they did to solve it, but when we do fieldwork we get to use our own problem-solving skills. It gives you a new level of learning.”

                              –Amanda Erlandson

“Snakes are both a prey object and a predator,” explained Erlandson. “They do a lot to control insect and rodent population in the area.”

The research has been a valuable experience for Erlandson, who hopes, upon graduation this spring, to work as a keeper in an aquarium or zoo, or continue conducting field research.

“The difference between doing in-class case studies and the fieldwork, is that we actually get to see what is happening,” said Erlandson. “When you read a case study in class about a project and how it went wrong, it tells you what they did to solve it, but when we do fieldwork we get to use our own problem-solving skills. It gives you a new level of learning.”
 

Written by: Alison Parkins, associate director of public relations, Communications, 608-342-1526, parkinsal@uwplatt.edu

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