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Wisconsin's rarest snake now slightly less so while snake fungal disease found in threatened rattlesnakes

Published by Central Office November 6, 2018

Contact(s): Rori Paloski, 608-264-6040; Rori.Paloski@wisconsin.gov; Rich Staffen, 608-266-4340, Richard.Staffen@wisconsin.gov or John Peterson, UW-Platteville, 608-879-0694

MADISON - One of Wisconsin's rarest snakes is now a little bit less rare. The western wormsnake, a small, nonvenomous and exceedingly rare snake, was found in a new site in Grant County in 2018, bringing the number of known sites in Wisconsin to three.

"It is such a rare snake it was exciting for the species and for conservation that we added a third site," says Rori Paloski, a Department of Natural Resources conservation biologist. "We had not had a new site documented in decades."

Western wormsnakes (Carphophis vermis) are fossorial, meaning they spend nearly all their active time underground or under rocks. Those reclusive habits, their rarity and the fact wormsnakes are one of Wisconsin's smallest snakes, growing to only 12 inches, adds to the difficulty finding them.

Wormsnake - Photo credit: John Peterson
The western wormsnake, Wisconsin's rarest snake, was found in a third site in 2018. Photo credit: John Peterson

That's why the discovery of the new site this summer by University of Wisconsin-Platteville students Caleb Cizauskas and Hanna Tydrich, is such good news. The two were working with UW-Platteville Professor John D. Peterson, under a grant Peterson received, when they discovered the snake.

Peterson, while on contract with the DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program to search the two known historical locations for wormsnakes, did confirm a healthy population at one of those sites.

A citizen scientist, John Burris, documented a single wormsnake at the other known location. Burris had just been out for the day with friends looking for snakes when he found a wormsnake in a small section of a fallen tree limb. He reported it to the NHC Program. All three known sites are in Grant County.

Snake fungal disease found in federally threatened massasauga rattlesnakes

Other Wisconsin snake news from 2018 wasn't as positive. NHC biologists successfully captured, measured and tagged eastern massasauga rattlesnakes to begin long-term monitoring for this state endangered and federally threatened species, but their efforts also unearthed the first Wisconsin massasauga testing positive with snake fungal disease.

View Slideshow SLIDE SHOW | 13 photos

How to capture and monitor a rare native rattlesnake

Snake fungal disease, SFD for short, to date has been found in 10 snake species in Wisconsin. In other states, including Illinois, it has been known to extirpate local snake populations. SFD can prevent snakes from effectively feeding and drinking, and cause them to bask conspicuously, making them more susceptible to predators, Paloski says.

"It wasn't a surprise to find it but it's unfortunate," she says.

Paloski and other NHC conservation biologists found only the one massasauga with SFD, so they hope it is an isolated incident, but future monitoring will help answer this and other questions about the disease. The fungus associated with SFD is believed to be naturally found in soil at background levels, "but something appears to be causing it to be more prevalent in recent years," she says.

Please submit photos of snakes with symptoms -- lumps along their face, neck and body -- to DNRherptiles@wi.gov.

Last Revised: Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Contact information

For more information about news and media, contact:
James Dick
Director of Communications
608-267-2773