EASTERN INDIGO SNAKES REARED AT ZOO ATLANTA REINTRODUCED TO THE WILD
Longtime conservation partnership is helping to re-establish a native species in its original range
One of the Southeast’s most iconic ecosystems recently welcomed 25 more of its original members with the reintroduction to the wild of a group of eastern indigo snakes reared at Zoo Atlanta. Introduced into Alabama’s Conecuh National Forest, near Andalusia, on June 25, 2022, the snakes are part of a multi-year conservation partnership to restore this native species to its original range.
Prior to the launch of this conservation effort, the eastern indigo snake had not been sighted in the wild in Alabama in around 50 years. Eastern indigo snakes are a keystone species of the longleaf pine-wiregrass and sandhills ecosystem, and their presence has significant positive ecological benefits for the national forest.
Zoo Atlanta has reared more than 100 eastern indigo snakes for the reintroduction program, which is a cooperation among stakeholders both regionally in the Southeast and at the federal level. Project partners include Auburn University; Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation; Orianne Society; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; U.S. Forest Service; and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
To date, over 200 eastern indigo snakes have been released into Conecuh National Forest. Zoo Atlanta’s primary contribution to the initiative is the rearing of hatchling snakes until they reach a size capable of avoiding most predators that feed on juvenile snakes. Because they had been designated for release into the wild, the young snakes received care and feeding in behind-the-scenes facilities where they had limited interactions with humans. The recent group of 25 snakes, 13 males and 12 females, spent the past year at Zoo Atlanta and, prior to their release, received passive integrated responder tags (PIT) for identification. In recent years, results from tracking efforts have shown that previous groups of reintroduced individuals are thriving and reproducing.
“The eastern indigo snake reintroduction program is an outstanding example not only of the power of partnership, but of a conservation project that is being proven to work, with the most rewarding long-term results being a thriving population that includes descendants of reintroduced snakes,” said Jennifer Mickelberg, PhD, Vice President of Collections and Conservation. “There is still work to be done, but it is very rewarding to know that we are helping an important native species regain a sustainable solid footing in its original range.”
Recognizable by their beautiful, iridescent scales, which are blue-black in color, eastern indigo snakes are the largest nonvenomous snake species in North America. Currently classified as Threatened, the species is native to southern Georgia, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi, but wild numbers have declined with the destruction of the longleaf ecosystem. Similar declines have been observed in Georgia’s state reptile, the gopher tortoise, which creates burrows that are often used by eastern indigo snakes and other species.
Eastern indigo snakes play an additional valuable role in their environment by keeping other snake populations in check, as they are known to eat venomous species, including copperheads. These snakes are not constrictors; instead, they overpower their prey using the crushing force of their jaws.
Visit zooatlanta.org/conservation to learn more about conservation programs and partnerships at Zoo Atlanta.
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