Zoos + conservation: indigo snakes
The eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) is the largest non-venomous snake in the United States, with large adult males reaching lengths over seven feet. They are also considered apex predators in the southern longleaf pine and sandhill environments of the southeastern US. They are active predators that can cover large amounts of ground in their pursuit of prey, mates, and shelter (typically gopher tortoise [Gopherus polyphemus] burrows). Although not blue as the moniker “indigo” might suggest, these sleek black snakes are highly iridescent and in the right light, have blue or purple sheen to them. They are also suffering heavy declines across their range and are under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Last week I attended a meeting of the Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Committee, which is a partnership of multiple state, federal, zoo, and non-governmental organizations to study the indigo snake as well as help it return to areas where it once flourished. We discussed many ideas, made plans, and had really great discussions at this meeting, all centered on the future of this iconic reptile. One of those areas is southern Alabama. This species was last known to be surviving and reproducing there in 1954, after which populations disappeared.
Working with a number of partners including Auburn University, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation, and others, Zoo Atlanta has helped to reintroduce indigo snakes to a part of their former range in Alabama. We’ve done this by rearing young snakes here at the Zoo that were hatched at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation until they are large enough to avoid most predators. Then they are released into a section of the Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama. These releases have been going on for about a decade now, with over 150 indigo snakes released.
Just prior to our meeting, some of the team were out in the Conecuh and discovered a baby indigo snake, the first wild-born one seen in Alabama in over 60 years! This fantastic news has been covered in a number of media outlets over the last couple of weeks and is a sign that all the effort put into the reintroductions is paying off.
So if you’re ever scratching your head about how zoos and conservation go together, just think about the indigo snake!
Robert L. Hill
Assistant Curator of Herpetology