In 2009, scientists at the California Academy of Sciences Steinhart Aquarium discovered some of the snakes suffering from a strange illness that caused them to stare off into space, appear like they were drunk and even tie themselves into knots they could not escape. Other serious symptoms included the buildup of proteins, susceptibility to secondary bacterial infections and body wasting. This mysterious illness posed a big problem for captive snakes like boa constrictors and pythons because it can rapidly spread among animals. Animals with symptoms of the disease are therefore killed to help prevent the spread of this fatal illness.
More recently, researchers from the University of California San Francisco sequenced the genome of a healthy boa constrictor and compared the sequence to that of sick animals using microarray technology. They discovered that the culprit was a type of arenavirus distantly related to viruses that cause Ebola in humans. Until now, it was not known that an arenavirus could infect reptiles.
Stenglein MD, Sanders C, Kistler AL, Ruby JG, Franco JY, Reavill DR, Dunker F, DeRisi JL. Identification, characterization, and in vitro culture of highly divergent arenaviruses from boa constrictors and annulated tree boas: Candidate etiological agents for snake inclusion body disease. mBio 3(4), 2012. doi:10.1128/mBio.00180-12
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