July 8, 2010

With the rebirth of viable stands of the majestic longleaf pine in south Alabama, one of the denizens of the longleaf ecosystem is being given another chance to mount a comeback.

The Eastern indigo snake, a protected and threatened species throughout its range, disappeared in Alabama in step with the loss of longleaf stands. Attempts by Dan Speake of the Alabama Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at Auburn University, to repopulate the non-venomous snakes met with some early success. However, over time, a viable population was not established, probably due to habitat degradation around the release sites.

Since then, longleaf reforestation efforts have intensified and wildlife biologists decided another attempt to restore the Eastern indigos to Alabama might be in order. After several years of preparation, Eastern indigos were recently released in the Conecuh National Forest, which has the longleaf habitat suitable for the snakes.

Mark Sasser, wildlife biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, said 17 juvenile eastern indigos were released in two phases.

“We did what’s called a soft release, where half of the snakes were released into two- to three- acre enclosures,” Sasser said. “They were released into the enclosures as an experiment to see if maybe they would imprint on the area and stay there. The plan is to leave them in the pen for two to four months before allowing them to escape.

“Then we had what is called a hard release – the others were released in the forest in close proximity but outside of the pens.”

Two weeks after the release, Auburn graduate students monitoring the snakes have reported that the farthest a snake has moved from the release site is a little more than half a mile.

“They’ve accounted for all the snakes,” Sasser said. “They were hatched in the lab, raised in the lab and fed in the lab, and the students have already witnessed one Eastern indigo eating a copperhead and another eating a gray rat snake. This shows these snakes are hard-wired as predatory animals.

“The question in some of the research peoples’ minds is will these snakes be able to adapt to the wild and feed on their own. Apparently the answer is yes. The fact they’ve already been witnessed feeding on snakes in the wild in the first week is a very good sign.”

Sasser and fellow wildlife biologist Roger Clay surveyed the areas in 2005 and 2006 where Speake had released indigo hatchlings and came up without a single indigo sighting.

“When we were unable to find any indigos to prove that a population existed, the next step was to move into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Indigo Recovery Plan that called for captive breeding of wild snakes to try to re-establish a viable population,” Sasser said.

Sasser talked with Craig Guyer, Auburn professor and herpetologist, and Jim Godwin, zoologist with the Alabama Natural Heritage Program at Auburn, to determine if another repopulation attempt was feasible and if they were willing to partner in the project.

“Mark came to me to see if we would be interested in doing a pilot study to determine if the Eastern indigo could be reintroduced into Alabama,” Godwin said. “We did a pilot study and decided that conditions at Conecuh National Forest were appropriate to do another release. The major cause we believe that led to the demise of the snake in the state is habitat alteration. Down in Conecuh there has been some very good longleaf restoration taking place. We decided we could attempt another reintroduction project.”

When word got out that another release was planned, partners started joining the effort in short order.

“That’s when we began the captive breeding program at Auburn using wild snakes that Georgia let us have and helped us capture,” Sasser said. “We started catching snakes in ’07 and the first hatchlings were in ’08, so these were snakes that were almost two years old when they were released.”

The partners involved in the restoration work include Alabama DCNR, Auburn University, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Project Orianne, a private conservation organization specifically focused on the Eastern Indigo.

“Also the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was involved by providing the wild snakes for the captive breeding program,” Sasser said. “Because the Eastern indigo is a federally listed species, we obtained approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to capture six gravid (egg-carrying) females from each population. After Auburn University collected the eggs in the lab, these females went back to Georgia and were released at their capture sites. The next year we went back and caught other females. Zoo Atlanta has now taken over some of the rearing of the hatchlings, so it has been added as a partner in the last year. If any one of our partners hadn’t been on board, it wouldn’t have happened. This is a definite example of how partnerships like this can make something happen.”

Godwin said in two years about 75 snakes have been hatched at Auburn.

“They are kept in individual containers,” he said. “They are given daily care. Indigo snakes will eat just about anything. Keeping them fed is a challenge because they eat so much. The base prey we fall back on because they’re easy to get are lab mice.”

The indigo snake’s role in the longleaf pine ecosystem is both as predator and prey.

“They are very opportunistic feeders,” Sasser said. “They’ll feed on just about anything from small mammals, frogs, lizards and other snakes. They are immune to snake venom. They feed on rattlesnakes and, obviously, copperheads – just about any animal they can grab and swallow. They are a prey item as well for animals like hawks and owls.

“The Eastern indigo is an important part of that ecosystem and we want to bring them back in Alabama. There are populations in Georgia and populations in south Florida. There are a very few reports at Eglin Air Force but very negligible. The population is obviously in trouble in the Florida Panhandle and an effort will be made by Florida and Project Orianne to re-establish a population there.”

Those who think they may have encountered an Eastern indigo snake in the wild are asked to call Sasser (334-242-3863) or Clay (251-626-5474). Sasser did say that identifying the snake, which can reach 8 feet in length, could be difficult for the average citizen.

“Upon sight, a black snake running through the bushes, it’ll be difficult to tell,” he said. “Upon closer observation, the black pine snake is more of a black-brown and may have lighter markings around its tail. A black racer is more slender. The Eastern Indigo is a shiny bluish-black and the scales are real smooth. The black pine has keeled scales, a ridge running down the scales so it doesn’t have as smooth a look.”

Sasser said the partnership will continue to release snakes in Conecuh at least for the next several years in a continuing effort to establish a viable population. Godwin said the effort should be considered a long-term project.

“What we are thinking is that we will be releasing 30 to 60 snakes a year over a period of 10 years, but we’re not sure we’ll be able to do that,” Godwin said. “We know we will lose some of them. A hawk will catch one, or one will get run over or succumb to disease. There are all sorts of dangers for snakes.

“To overcome those dangers we need a large number of snakes out there. The major roadblock is getting enough snakes in this one spot over a period of years, and having enough out there so they will be able to mature, find mates, breed, lay eggs in appropriate places and hatch out more snakes. We just need to get enough animals out there so all of these natural processes can take place.

“I do think we’re off to a real good start.”

PHOTO: (by Billy Pope) Jim Godwin of Auburn University, left, and Mark Sasser of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division release an Eastern indigo snake in Conecuh National Forest. The Eastern indigo snake has blue-black color with slick scales for a smooth appearance.