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How Tampa’s ‘snake man’ is trying to save Florida’s snakes from a deadly disease

Rapid urbanization, a killer fungus and habitat loss are all fueling Shiv Shukla’s research on native snakes.
 
Published Aug. 28, 2023|Updated Sept. 5, 2023

Amid sandy ground covered by saw palmetto and the occasional prickly pear cactus, Shiv Shukla looks for snakes.

He has been doing this recreationally since he was a kid, but now he slogs through the woods with urgency.

Shukla is concerned about many threats facing snakes. During the almost 3-mile trek across the University of South Florida Forest Preserve in search of one, he speaks at length about invasive species, habitat destruction and urbanization.

But his master’s thesis focuses on an understudied and emerging peril — Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, a pathogen brought to Florida from Asia in the pet trade that causes a fatal fungal disease in the reptiles.

“When people think of invasive species, they think of the pythons, the iguanas — things like that,” Shukla said. “But the pathogens, too, can cause detrimental impacts, which is what we’re trying to study.”

Similar fungi have caused extinction for some frogs and salamanders, but snakes have largely evaded widespread fungal annihilation.

Shukla says that may soon change.

“We’ve seen what imported pathogens and non-native pathogens can do to the populations of other animals,” he said. “It’s concerning when you see a new pathogen emerging in a population that you study.”

Shiv Shukla, a graduate student in conservation biology at the University of South Florida, looks for snakes at the USF Forest Preserve.
Shiv Shukla, a graduate student in conservation biology at the University of South Florida, looks for snakes at the USF Forest Preserve. [ JENNIFER GLENFIELD | Times ]

Whether in snakes, other animals or humans, diseases spread faster in densely populated areas than they would normally out in the wild.

“Florida is rapidly urbanizing and being developed,” Shukla said. “They’re going to be all kind of packed together in small green spaces.”

Even near his New Tampa neighborhood, Shukla has seen a loss of greenery as more people move into areas where wildlife used to roam.

15 years ago, undeveloped thickets stretched across north Tampa. Shukla has watched outlet malls replace the woods where he used to catch snakes.

Around the age of 7, he saved a harmless garden snake that was trapped inside his parents’ pool enclosure. Not only was it his first time handling a snake, but it was the first time he saw the effects of human sprawl on nature.

“If there’s a forest you might not see them,” he said. “But if there’s no forest, then they’re going to end up coming to your swimming pools.”

Shukla, 23, said his parents are supportive of his work, but have a ban on snakes in the house. Instead, he cares for two poison dart frogs, two tree frogs and a bearded dragon at home.

Reptiles were his first love. In kindergarten, Shukla’s teachers posted notes that told visitors what the kids wanted to be when they grew up. Careers like “astronaut” and “doctor” littered the display.

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Next to Shukla’s name? “Herpetologist.”

Shiv Shukla and Jessalyn Aretz are graduate students in conservation biology at the University of South Florida.
Shiv Shukla and Jessalyn Aretz are graduate students in conservation biology at the University of South Florida. [ JENNIFER GLENFIELD | Times ]

His snake research has taken him far already — he has traveled to Louisiana, Yellowstone and the Smoky Mountains. But Shukla has dreams to travel to Africa to study the green mamba, one of his favorite exotic snakes.

Shukla often lends his expertise on his neighborhood’s Nextdoor forum and Tampa Facebook groups. Under posts of snakes are comments like “Shiv would know,” or “Shiv Shukla — would you mind identifying this snake, please?”

Shukla says it’s a daily stream of snake-related questions. One neighbor suggested he should start a website called “Go Ask Shiv.”

“I tell people, you know, I’ve worked with (poisonous snakes) every single day,” he said. “And I still haven’t gotten bitten, so you don’t have to fear them as long as you give them safe distance and you’ll be OK.”

He enjoys his local fame when he’s teaching people about conservation or relocating a snake in distress, but he has a lukewarm feeling toward the “snake man” title he’s earned online.

“It’s fine,” Shukla said, smiling and looking down at his shoes, now soaked from wading knee-deep across a pond. “I understand the appeal.”

He walked over to another cover board, a thin piece of plywood that provides shelter for snakes. After lifting it up with a metal hook and digging around in the earth, he found nothing underneath.

Shukla shrugged and kept walking through the preserve.

On this particular August day, Shukla said the 95-degree heat has kept the snakes in hiding. This is typical during hotter months — he said he might catch 30 snakes in the summer and upwards of 200 in the winter.

“When it’s this hot outside and the sun is kind of beating down on everything, the snakes aren’t as surface active,” Shukla said. “It’s a lot harder to find them.”

But this summer — partly due to drought conditions and extreme heat — he’s seen even fewer snakes.

If he catches a snake showing symptoms of the disease — skin lesions and ulcers — Shukla brings it back to the lab to test for the fungus.

This snake is suffering from Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, which causes a deadly fungal disease in snakes. Symptoms include skin lesions, ulcers and erratic behavior. Snakes often dry themselves out in the sun trying to rid themselves of the fungus.
This snake is suffering from Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, which causes a deadly fungal disease in snakes. Symptoms include skin lesions, ulcers and erratic behavior. Snakes often dry themselves out in the sun trying to rid themselves of the fungus. [ Courtesy of Shiv Shukla ]

There are about a dozen snakes sheltered at his USF St. Pete research lab. Shukla feeds them every week and named most of them himself: There’s Snape the venomous cottonmouth and Rex the harmless rattlesnake.

Snake handlers need 1,000 documented hours working with venomous snakes before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission grants them a permit — more than some airplane pilot certificates.

“No matter how long you’ve had this thing, or how well you know their personality, they can always turn on you,” Shukla said.

Jessalyn Aretz, 27, often goes out with Shukla in the field. They met last year when Shukla joined the graduate program. A third-year conservation biology master’s student, Aretz focuses on invasive cane toads and their threat to native wildlife.

“I’ve learned a lot about snakes just from meeting him,” she said.

Jessalyn Aretz, a third year master's student at USF studying conservation biology, holds a tadpole fished from a pond in the USF Forest Preserve.
Jessalyn Aretz, a third year master's student at USF studying conservation biology, holds a tadpole fished from a pond in the USF Forest Preserve. [ JENNIFER GLENFIELD | Times ]

While Shukla is digging under concrete rubble for snakes, Aretz is scooping tadpoles out of standing water with a net.

Shukla just finished the first year of his master’s and has one more to go before wrapping up his snake disease research. He expects his finished thesis will uncover more questions than answers.

“I don’t think I’ll be satisfied,” he said.

But Shukla isn’t ready to leave Florida, which he says is at a “crossroads” and needs biologists and conservationists more than ever.

“I think it’s really important that we study these creatures and these habitats right now while we still have Florida,“ he said. “The green mambas can wait.”