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A deep black snake coiled up on sandy soil with young longleaf pine seedlings in the background
Information icon An Eastern indigo snake on sandy soil associated with the longleaf pine ecosystem. Photo © Houston Chandler, the Orianne Society (Used with permission).

22 Eastern Indigo Snakes just released in annual effort to return America’s longest snake to North Florida

Tallahassee, Florida — In an enthusiastic launch of year four of the 10-year effort to return the essential, native, non-venomous apex predator to the region, 22 eastern indigo snakes have just been released in northern Florida. This collaborative program continues the annual release of snakes, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and raised specifically for recovery of the species, to The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve (ABRP) in Bristol.

The eastern indigo species recovery effort in North Florida is the long-term joint commitment of multiple nonprofit, agency, and academic partners: The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens’ Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service), Welaka National Fish Hatchery, The Orianne Society, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Southern Company through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida. The partners have worked together for decades to restore and manage the habitat required by the snake, and many other species, to make the release possible.

“Today’s eastern indigo snakes release furthers the collaborative effort to bring this beautiful and important snake back to where it belongs in north Florida, and to secure its future here,” said Steve Coates, Director, Stewardship and Field Programs, The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “We continue to protect and restore the species and landscapes that are critical to supporting nature across our state.”

The eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) is the longest snake native to North America and an iconic and essential component of the now rare southern longleaf pine forest. It serves a critical function to balance the wildlife community—it consumes a variety of small animals including both venomous and nonvenomous snakes. At over eight-feet long, the impressive indigo often relies upon gopher tortoise burrows for shelter. The snakes were historically found in southern Georgia, Alabama, eastern Mississippi, and throughout Florida, though their range is now far more restricted. Largely eliminated from northern Florida due to habitat loss and fragmentation, the indigo was last observed at ABRP in 1982, until the species recovery effort began in 2017. Since then, several dozen snakes have been reintroduced to the preserve.

The previously released snakes have settled in to their new home which well supports their needs. Snakes from the first release have been observed in good health, and there have been two independent observations of a male and female occupying a single tortoise burrow. Reproduction has not yet been documented but seems to be only a matter of time. It is clear that they are filling the apex predator role as indigos have been observed in two instances preying on other snakes: Recently, one of the indigos was observed consuming a banded water snake, another was observed consuming a coachwhip. And almost immediately after release in 2017, one of the indigos was found eating a copperhead.

ABRP is the only site in Florida currently designated for indigo reintroduction. The 6,295-acre nature preserve in northern Florida’s Liberty County protects a large longleaf pine landscape carved by numerous seepage streams and is home to the gopher tortoise and the full suite of longleaf pine specialists. Located in the Apalachicola Bay region along the Apalachicola River, the preserve lies in the center of one of five biological hotspots in North America and is home to a great number of imperiled species. The preserve is a living laboratory for the development of restoration techniques and land management excellence, dedicated to natural community restoration, preservation of biodiversity, and education and training.

Only five percent of the longleaf pine ecosystem remains globally. Over the past thirty-plus years, The Nature Conservancy has employed science and technical expertise to develop the state-of-the-art groundcover restoration process that is now used by state, federal and private partners across the southeast to restore longleaf pine habitat. This restoration, combined with the Conservancy’s robust prescribed fire program, has resulted in improved longleaf habitat on over 100,000 public and private north Florida acres in recent years.

Longleaf pine restoration is also a top priority at places like the Apalachicola National Forest and Torreya State Park—both neighbors to ABRP and supported by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

The 22 snakes released at ABRP were bred and hatched by the Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC), the world’s foremost comprehensive-based conservation organization dedicated to the captive propagation and reintroduction of the eastern indigo snake. All hatched in 2018, the 10 females and 12 males were raised for one year at the OCIC, and transferred to the Welaka National Fish Hatchery for an additional year in preparation for their release. The snakes have been implanted with passive integrated transponders (PIT) by the Central Florida Zoo’s veterinary staff to allow for identification when encountered after release.

“Working alongside eastern indigo snakes on a daily basis is an extraordinary and rewarding experience. We are thrilled that, due to the breeding success at the OCIC, we are able to provide animals for this valuable conservation effort. We are excited to see these 22 snakes released and thriving as wild snakes,” said Michelle Hoffman, Director, Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation.

The Welaka National Fish Hatchery, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is located along the St. Johns River in Putnam County, Florida. Known primarily for striped bass, channel catfish and bluegill, the hatchery also raises at-risk Florida grasshopper sparrows, in addition to indigo snakes. The snakes are fed a steady diet of dead mice, quail chicks and rainbow trout, and grow to about four-and-a-half feet in length before release.

“The hatchery folks are getting very good at raising snakes, along with other animals that swim or fly,” said Leo Miranda, regional director for the Service in the South Atlantic-Gulf & Mississippi Basin. “We’ve also got outstanding employees who work with partners to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem that nurtures indigo snakes and myriad other threatened and endangered and at-risk species.”

In the first three years of the effort, Auburn University’s Alabama Natural Heritage Program conducted onsite monitoring of the reintroduced snakes, including the initial 32 snakes which were released were implanted with radio transmitters, allowing researchers to track the animals’ movements. One of the eastern indigo snakes that was released in 2017 traveled over a mile from where it was initially released.

“The snakes are looking great.This year we were finding two to three a day while doing the winter visual surveys and they are healthy and strong!” said David Printiss, North Florida Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy in Florida.

The monitoring program is supported in part by The Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, whose mission is to understand, demonstrate and promote excellence in natural resource management and landscape conservation in the southeastern coastal plains.

The indigo reintroduction efforts are supported by grants and other funding, including a Conserve Wildlife Tag Grant from the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, funded through purchase of Conserve Wildlife Florida license plates and designated for conservation of non-game species and the habitats that support them.

“We are excited to begin year four of this ambitious project; returning indigo snakes to the longleaf pine forests of the Florida panhandle” said Kipp Frohlich, the FWC’s Director of Habitat and Species Conservation. “This is a great example of how partners working together can tackle challenging conservation projects. Indigos are truly one of the State’s most beautiful and impressive species of snakes and an important part of the forest ecosystem.”

Additional funding to support the reintroduction has been provided by Southern Company through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The Orianne Society was integral in the creation of the OCIC and the indigo snake reintroduction team and continues to play a role in reintroducing eastern indigo snakes into places they no longer occur. The Society works to conserve critical ecosystems for imperiled reptiles and amphibians, using science, applied conservation, and education.

This year’s annual release continues a focus on establishment of healthy ecosystems through collaborative land, water, and wildlife conservation efforts. Throughout the state, the Conservancy continues to pursue conservation projects and support policy that protects natural systems for people and wildlife. Next year’s snake release will be scheduled for spring 2021— stay tuned.

The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at unprecedented scale, and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit nature.org/florida. In Florida since 1961, with support from our members, we have helped protect more than 1.2 million acres of vulnerable lands and waters across the state. We own and manage more than 52,000 acres in 25 Conservancy preserves in Florida. Visit us on the web, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

Contact

Fran Perchick, The Nature Conservancy
fran.perchick@tnc.org, (646) 369-6643

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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