A mysterious condition called Inclusion Body Disease (IBD) strikes captive boa constrictors and pythons, causing bizarre behavioral changes and eventually death. Scientists investigating an outbreak of IBD among snakes at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco report they may well have found a virus that is responsible for this common but deadly disease, a discovery that could eventually lead to prevention and treatment options. The study appears in the August 14 issue of mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology. The authors report that the virus represents a whole new class of arenaviruses scientists have never seen before.
Among captive boas, IBD is the most commonly diagnosed disease that is thought to be caused by a virus. Snakes that have contracted IBD may initially regurgitate food, but they eventually show dramatic neurological problems, says Michael Buchmeier, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, Irvine. Neurological signs include "stargazing," in which the snake stares upwards for long periods of time.
"Some of the symptoms are pretty bizarre -- this stargazing behavior, looking like they're drunk, they tie themselves in a knot and they can't get out of it," says Buchmeier. The condition, which is named for the inclusions, or pockets of foreign material, found inside the cells of affected animals, is ultimately fatal. IBD is devastating for large aquariums, as it can infect a large number of snakes before it is identified and quarantine measures can be put in place. Since there is currently no treatment for the disease, infected snakes must be euthanized to prevent them from infecting other animals.