Steston University Campus

Stetson University Researcher Discovers Plethora of Parasites Infecting Pygmy Rattlesnakes

Pigmy rattlesnake
Source: Pigmy rattlesnake in the Avon Park Air Force Range in the Phase IVA restoration area

The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world and a native of southeast Asia.

For more than 15 years, the gigantic snake has decimated species and become the ruling reptile in the Florida Everglades.

The Burmese python problem has reached a new level of worrisome concern because it carries a parasite (pictured below) that infects native snakes in south Florida.

Screenshot from Pentastome Parasites in Dead Rattlesnake video. Link to the video is at the end of the article.

A new study, “Spillover of Pentastome Parasites from Invasive Burmese Pythons to Pygmy Rattlesnakes, Extending Parasite Range in Florida, USA,” is based on research by Terence Farrell, Ph.D, professor of biology at Stetson University and other research authors. 

Photo by Dr. Terence Farrell features (l-r) biology junior Jenna Palmisano, Ryan McCleary, Ph.D., Brown visiting teacher-scholar fellow in biology and biology senior Maddy Wheeler conducting a lung flush to obtain a parasite egg sample from the lung of an anesthetized pygmy rattlesnake.  

The research findings published in the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles’ journal Herpetological Review suggest that pentastome parasites or worms, are the likely culprit behind the deaths of three pygmy rattlesnakes at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge in DeLeon Springs, Florida. Pygmy rattlesnakes are venomous snakes native to the southeastern United States.

Burmese pythons evolved in Asia with these parasites, but it’s a new problem for pygmy rattlesnakes and other Florida snakes.

“Dr. Lind and I have been studying pygmy rattlesnakes for decades and found this occurrence pretty alarming,” said Farrell. “We conducted research and found that these types of parasites have never been found in pygmy rattlesnakes before.”

Stetson’s biology faculty and students conducted the preliminary testing, including examining and dissecting the three pygmy rattlesnakes, and found the parasites in the lung and trachea areas, and was consistent with past parasite research findings. These parasites typically reside in the lungs of reptiles that become infected after eating contaminated prey.

Farrell and his team of researchers have found the parasites in Central Florida, which is more than 100 miles away from where the Burmese pythons reside in the southern portion of the state.

“Our research shows that the parasites are moving north rapidly along the peninsula and appear to have some major health effects on pygmy rattlesnakes,” said Farrell, who was the paper’s senior research author.  

The parasite phenomenon is a reason to worry because the research reveals that there’s a new concern about invasive species and the diseases and parasites that they bring with them. This parasite may spread to other areas in the U.S., which may become a nationwide problem.

Read the entire study here: Spillover of Pentastome Parasites from Invasive Burmese Pythons (Python bivittatus) to Pygmy Rattlesnakes (Sistrurus miliarius), Extending Parasite Range in Florida, USA

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