UF researchers discover new viruses in invasive pythons in Florida

A Burmese python that tested positive for serpentovirus.
A Burmese python with oral inflammation that tested positive for serpentovirus.

An investigation of an outbreak of disease in snakes in Gainesville, Florida, led Dr. Robert Ossiboff, a clinical associate professor at UF, and his team to look more closely at a virus they were already studying that affected captive boas and pythons.

The researchers were concerned that the virus they had been studying might be affecting free-ranging snake populations in the Everglades, potentially having spread infection across the state.

Ossiboff, a veterinary anatomic pathologist and virologist whose research interests include diseases of reptiles and amphibians, began analyzing samples provided by a variety of different agencies throughout southern Florida. The team was looking for a particular type of virus, called serpentovirus.

These viruses are related to human coronaviruses, can be a major cause of morbidity and mortality in captive snakes globally, and have been documented to cause issues in wild turtles and lizards in Australia.

“It was very much a team project,” he said.

What the team found was not what they expected.

“We got lots of samples from lots of pythons, and the interesting thing we found was that lots of pythons had viruses in them, but they weren’t the same virus that we’d found was causing disease in the animals in Gainesville,” Ossiboff said. “These viruses were incredibly different from what we had seen in other snakes.”

A new study published in December in Viruses details the team’s findings and was the first to characterize serpentovirus in wild free-ranging pythons or in any free-ranging North American reptile.

“We found that nearly 25 percent of the sampled Burmese pythons were infected with multiple serpentoviruses,” Ossiboff said. “Out of concern for our native snake species, we also looked for these viruses in over 200 native snakes representing 18 species.

“While thankfully we did not find any of the Burmese python viruses in the native snakes, we did find a low percentage of snakes—around 2%— that were also infected with a couple of serpentoviruses also never found before,” he added.

Although researchers do not yet know the complete implications of the python viruses to the south Florida ecosystem, their recent study does serve as another example of how invasive wildlife species can introduce pathogens to a native environment.

“It also draws attention to the fact that we do not entirely understand the relationship of these viruses and their reptile hosts,” Ossiboff said.

Collaborators in the study included Colorado State University, or CSU; the Conservancy of Southwest Florida; the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey. The vast majority of sample testing was performed at UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine, with a subset tested at CSU.

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