Wildlife Biology major Jedda Levy uses Ledford Scholarship funds to investigate snake health right here on campus

As she wades through the tall grasses and golden rod stalks that blanket the Elk Valley Preserve, Wildlife Biology major Jedda Levy pauses every so often to flip over a sheet of metal in the grass. She is looking for snakes, and if she finds oneor threeshe grabs them as quickly as she can. Levy has been catching snakes for as long as she can remember, so the bites she gets along the way are just par for the course.

“I’ve always loved snakes and have always loved catching snakes, so this is kind of an excuse for me to go out and get funded for doing something I love, as well as help conserve these animals and find out more about them,” Levy said. “We have the great resources here at Lees-McRae to do so with our Field Station and our Rehabilitation Center, and I’m working with both over the course of this study.”

Levy’s summer research, which is being funded by the Ledford Scholarship, focuses on a topic close to her heart: snake health. Specifically, Levy is surveying snakes in the Elk Valley Preserve for cases of snake fungal disease, a potentially lethal pathogenic infection that appears in wild North American snakes.

The most common indicators of the disease are skin lesions, scale abnormalities, and clouded eyes, but Levy said that the disease also impacts snake behavior in ways that scientists don’t fully understand yet. While the disease has become better documented over the last couple of decades, she said that it is still relatively new to science, particularly so in the Southern Appalachian region. This gap in research and understanding, and her personal love of snakesLevy has a pet ball python named Lunadrove her to use the funds from the Ledford Scholarship to better understand the way snakes in this region are impacted by snake fungal disease.

Throughout her research Levy has been working closely with Program Coordinator for Wildlife Biology and Director of the Elk Valley Preserve Michael Osbourn. As her project advisor he is able to provide valuable insight and guidance.

“It’s really important because snakes are facing a lot of conservation threats from different angles. In order to help protect them and understand their biology, it’s important that we know about some of these wild pathogens that are going through the population,” Levy said. “One thing we do know is that it seems to cause snakes to come out of hibernation early. Especially in regions like this where it gets so cold, they need to spend that time hibernating. Sometimes this infection makes them come out early, and then if they come out too early, they can freeze.”

At this stage Levy’s study primarily consists of data collection. On sunny days when the cold-blooded snakes are drawn to the heat of the tins laid out in the preserve, she begins her rotation around the field: flipping tins, catching the snakes resting underneath, inspecting them for signs of snake fungal disease, and taking note of the number of snakes under each tin as well as the temperature beneath and outside of the tin.

Levy also keeps a catalogue of the snakes she finds to help her get a better understanding of how many snakes in the area may be affected by the disease. She marks each snake she catches with a small dot of nail polish, notes any lesions or other indications of disease they may have, and photographs each snake’s right-side profile. This final step is helpful in the cataloguing process because, like human fingerprints, each snake has a unique scale pattern. When she does find snakes with indications of the disease, she swabs them to gather a tissue sample, which she later sends off for PCR testing.

Capturing each snake's unique facial pattern helps Levy keep track of the snakes she has caught so far. Maintaining an up-to-date catalogue is important for getting an accurate understanding of the disease's impact on snakes in the preserve.
Although the nail polish will eventually come off during the snake's next molting period, marking them in this way is another strategy Levy uses to prevent double-counting snakes in the short-term.

“When I have gone through the literature, I can’t find a lot of information about the disease in North Carolina, but personally, I’ve seen it all over. Not only in this region, but I visited Durham over Easter break and I saw evidence of it there,” she said. “I have seen a lot of snakes here with evidence of it, but there’s not really any documentation, which is an important reason why I want to do this study just to help confirm that this is an area that does experience it, and we need to put it on the map and in the literature.”

Throughout her data collection process so far, Levy said she has found evidence of snake fungal disease in 15−30% of the snakes she has captured at the Elk Valley Preserve. She said the preserve has been instrumental in conducting this experiment. In fact, Levy’s idea to study snake fungal disease initially sparked in the summer of 2023 when the first positive case of the disease in Avery County was identified in the Elk Valley Preserve.

“Something I love about this project in particular is that it uses both sides of our wildlife program: our field biology program and our rehab program. Of course, without the field station I wouldn’t be able to do this project, or I would have to do it on public land which would get tricky,” Levy said. “I also worked with the rehabilitation center for the more medical side of things. Dr. Sam hooked me up with a vet-med lab in Illinois so I can send some of my samples for PCR, which is a genetic test just so I can confirm that what we’re finding is indeed snake fungal disease.”

Not only is this research a perfect combination of the two prongs of the college’s Wildlife Biology program, but it also marries Levy’s interest in both rehabilitation and field biology, topics she dreamt of combining in the classroom when she first enrolled at Lees-McRae.

In the Fall 2024 semester Levy will be holding a presentation of her research that will be free and open to the campus and local community. There she will share her findings and expand on the ways this research will positively impact the fields of wildlife biology and wildlife rehabilitation as well as snake welfare more generally.

By Maya JarrellJune 25, 2024