Murray State biology students researching snake fungal disease in western Kentucky

MSU photo

Murray State University students are researching a fungal disease found in snakes which has been observed in western Kentucky and other states. Pictured is graduate student John Hewlett of Murray, holding up a snake, "Buzz," that he picked up while conducting field research.

MURRAY -- Murray State University students are researching a fungal disease found in snakes that has been observed in western Kentucky and other states.

Graduate student John Hewlett and undergraduate student Gage Barnes are both part of a lab group led by Dr. Andrea Darracq, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. The pair are researching what is known as snake fungal disease (SFD), caused by the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, through a combination of field and laboratory research. Snakes are safely captured in the wild, assessed for the presence of the fungus, then returned to the ecosystem with a surgically-implanted tracker.

Hewlett, a Murray native who is pursuing a Master of Science in biology, has been observing and interested in snakes - particularly timber rattlesnakes - for years. His graduate research is centered around how stress may lead to disease susceptibility in snakes. He said it's unclear how SFD is transmitted, but it can cause severe lesions on a snake's body, which may affect its health and lead to mortality in severe cases.

Barnes, a fellow Murray native and junior biology major, has been working to catch snakes across western Kentucky to assess the presence of SFD in a variety of snake species. Of the 46 he has caught so far, nine have tested positive for the fungus that causes SFD.

While there is still much work to be done, the researchers believe SFD could impact snake populations, communities and ultimately ecosystems, as they often serve as the apex predators in some environments.

Both Hewlett and Barnes have presented their work to their peers. Hewlett presented at the Biology of Pitvipers conference in Rodeo, New Mexico, in July, while Barnes presented at the Watershed Studies Institute Research Symposium, held at Murray State in April.

"It's a huge privilege to be able to do this here," Hewlett said. "I've had basically a lifelong connection with the department here ever since I was a freshman in high school working in the genetics lab. I really can't think of anywhere else I'd rather do this. Dr. Darracq has been extremely supportive in our research and I can't thank her enough."

"I'm extremely thankful for the experience I've had with undergraduate research at Murray State," Barnes said. "It's helping me prepare for the future and graduate school and ultimately, my passion is not only research, but outreach opportunities and teaching why maintaining our ecosystems is so important. Without Murray State and Dr. Darracq, I wouldn't have these opportunities."

"I love the research, but I'm always here first and foremost for the students," Darracq said. "It's so valuable for our students to carry out this professional-level work that they can present to colleagues at conferences and add to their resume. I'm extremely proud of the hard work that John, Gage and all the students in the lab have done."

The Murray State University Department of Biological Sciences offers a hands-on approach to education, preparing students for careers across the entire spectrum of biology, from wildlife and conservation biology to physiology, microbiology and so much more. Many students interested in careers in medicine and other health-related fields often choose biology as their undergraduate major; many graduates of the department also go on to teach in secondary and university settings. For more information, visit murraystate.edu/biology.

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