This is terrifying and sad all at the same time. Scientists have known about Chrysosporium for years, but they've never known it to do this. The ghastly fungal infection — notorious for popping up in captive animals around the world — has made the leap to a population of endangered rattlesnakes in Illinois, posing a serious threat to their survival.

The first cases of infection were noted in 2008, when researchers — who were monitoring a population of massasauga rattlesnakes (pictured up top) near Carlyle, Illinois — encountered a trio of the reptiles with heads covered in gruesome ulcers, and swelling that extended throughout their fangs, skin and skeletal muscles. A fourth snake was later recovered, as well, but all of them perished just weeks after their discovery.

Three or four snakes may not sound like a big deal to most people, but these rattlers are being affected by just one in a handful of recent infections that researchers say are becoming more and more problematic.

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"Fungal pathogens have been increasingly associated with free-ranging epidemics in wildlife, including the well-known effects of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis on frog populations globally and white-nose syndrome in bats," explains researcher Matthew Allender in a recent issue of Emerging Infections Diseases. "Both of these diseases cause widespread and ongoing deaths in these populations that seriously threaten biodiversity across the United States." [These images, from the publication, show the extent of the tissue damage experienced by the snakes]

In just five years, the white-nose syndrome that Allender is referring to has expanded from a small population of bats in New York to sixteen states and four Canadian provinces, wiping out between six and seven million bats in the process. If a similar spread were witnessed in these Illinois rattlers — which are already candidates for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act — it could lead to their extinction.

[Emerging Infectious Disease via Scientific American]
Top photo via USGS
Infection photos via CDC