Aggressive fungal pathogen discovered in panther chameleons

Aggressive fungal pathogen discovered in panther chameleons

Tiermedizin Science

Fungi of the genera Nannizziopsis and Paranannizziopsis have long been known to cause severe skin diseases in various reptiles. These include species feared in herpetocolture such as CANV (Chrysosporium Anamorph of Nannizziopsis vriesii) and Nannizziopsis dermatitidis, which are apparently obligate pathogens. Now, a similar skin fungus has been detected in panther chameleons in Florida, USA.

Nine adult panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) were taken from a wild population in Florida. They were first housed in groups of two or three chameleons in screen cages with natural and artificial plants at a private keeper. A ReptiSun 5.0 lamp and a conventional light bulb were used. The animals were fed with crickets and zophobas every second day and supplemented with vitamins and calcium. All nine panther chameleons, plus a tenth that was captured later, were finally given to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a series of experiments. They were kept individually in steel aviaries outdoors.

Subsequently, the eight remaining panther chameleons were also examined. In fact, all but one of the chameleons were found to have either missing claws or swelling of the hands and feet, small skin wounds, circumferential proliferation on the body and/or yellow and black skin lesions. Fungal PCR was no longer carried out, but infection with the same pathogen was suspected. All nine panther chameleons still alive were treated with 25 mg/kg terbinafine and 5 mg/kg voriconazole, both given orally once daily.

After six weeks, the panther chameleons were examined again. The skin lesions were still present, in two animals the hand and foot swellings had decreased. After eleven to twelve weeks of treatment, all symptoms had disappeared in seven chameleons. The skin lesions had developed into scars. Only two chameleons still showed swelling in the foot area, but less than at the beginning of treatment. After 14 weeks of therapy, another panther chameleon died. The autopsy revealed kidney and organ damage as the cause of death. Since the contribution of the medication used to the death of the chameleon could not be ruled out, the therapy was terminated in week 15 for six of the eight panther chameleons. The two panther chameleons that still showed swelling of the feet were treated for another two weeks.

This case report is the first detection of Paranannizziopsis australasiensis in chameleons. So far, this fungal pathogen has only been found in green iguanas and Eastern bearded dragons in herpetoculture and in Tuataras, skinks, geckos, and snakes in nature. It remains unclear where the panther chameleons became infected. Three of the screen cages used in the initial private husbandry had previously been inhabited by Veiled Chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus) and Knight Anoles. The private keeper had disinfected the terrariums with chlorine bleach. The rest of his reptile population showed no skin lesions. The aviaries used later at the USDA had been empty for years and had previously only been inhabited by small birds. It is possible that the fungal pathogen had been introduced via potted plants from nurseries that regularly observe native reptiles on the premises. However, Paranannizziopsis australasiensis has not been found in any other wild reptile species in Florida to date.

The most likely scenario seems to be that the chameleons were already infected before they were caught in Florida, but the disease only broke out later. The original animals of the population could have been infected by bearded dragons in the pet trade a good decade ago. A latent infection with a late onset is supported by the fact that most of the skin lesions in this case report were found in winter, after temperatures had dropped below 10°C. Moreover, before the onset of symptoms, so-called “thermal limit trials” were carried out, in which the animals were briefly exposed to extreme temperatures of up to 45°C and 6°C. Another chameleon from the same population was caught at a later time and also developed skin lesions, which indeed suggests an infected population in Florida.

A free-ranging chameleon population infected with Paranannizziopsis australasiensis could pose a huge risk to native reptiles. The fungal pathogen is known to be highly infectious and aggressive. In addition, free-ranging panther chameleons in Florida are now being captured by dealers and sold to private owners, which could result in the spread of the disease in private reptile populations. Further research is urgently needed to clarify the extent of the current occurrence of Paranannizziopsis australasiensis in Florida, both in herpetoculture and in the wild.

Dermatomycosis caused by Paranannizziopsis australasiensis in nonnative panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) captured in Central Florida, USA
Natalie M. Claunch, Colin M. Goodman, Madison Harman, Mariaguadalupe Vilchez, Savanna D. Smit, Bryan M. Kluever, James F.X. Wellehan, Robert J. Ossiboff, Christina M. Romagosa
Journal of Wildlife Diseases (4), 2023
DOI: 10.7589/JWD-D-22-00018