A mysterious 'mad snake disease' that induces bizarre "drunken" behavior in pythons and boa constrictors and gets them to tie themselves into knots may be caused by an entirely new class of virus microbiologists have recently identified.
The virus, which was previously thought to not infect snakes at all, appears to cause the "inclusion body disease," which causes snakes like boa constrictors and pythons to first regurgitate food and then display neurological problems like "stargazing," when a snake stares aimlessly 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," Michael Buchmeier, professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, Irvine, said in a statement.
In their confused state, infected snakes will coil themselves into tangles they can't get out of and eventually perish.
The deadly illness spreads among boas and pythons in captivity and triggers tiny clumps of clustered proteins to form inside the snake, which can lead to bacterial infections, neurological problems, anorexia and withering, and ultimately death.
The latest findings published in the journal mBio finds that a whole new set of arenaviruses that have never been identified may be responsible for the untreatable disease, making it possible for researchers to develop treatments or cures to eradicate the common illness from snake collections worldwide.
Researchers analyzed DNA samples taken from boas and pythons and identified two strains of DNA that belonged to the arenavirus family that did not look like your ordinary arenaviruses.
After the virus was identified, researchers were able to grow an isolate one of the viruses in the laboratory and found that it doesn't fit perfectly into either of the two known categories of arenaviruses: Old World and New World.
While the two strains looked like distant relatives of other arenaviruses, the strains of viruses found in the recent study had a gene or protein coat that was more similar to those of Ebola viruses.
Researchers explained that like arenaviruses, Ebola viruses can cause fatal hemorrhagic fever when transmitted to humans.
Scientists suggest that the latest findings could help researchers understand how some deadly viruses in animals end up swapping species and infecting humans.
"This is one of the most exciting things that has happened to us in virology in a very long time," Buchmeier said.
The fact that we have apparently identified a whole new lineage of arenaviruses that may predate the New and Old world is very exciting," he added.