– By Jimmy Stiles
The majestic Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi, Latin for forest ruler) is North America’s largest native snake. In Alabama, it inhabits the Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) forests and associated wetlands in the very southern end of our state. It makes its living consuming a wide variety of prey but often specializing on other snakes, a behavior known as ophiophagy. The indigo’s large size (up to 8 ft.) and it’s propensity for eating other snakes including venomous species, means not even the biggest rattlesnake is safe from an adult indigo. This important ecological function, coupled with its gentle demeanor, have gained it respect from people that might even despise other snakes. With a bounty of food and less persecution, one might think that indigo snakes would be a common sight in the southern landscape; however, the reality is the exact opposite.
Indigo snakes are listed as federally threatened by the Endangered Species Act. Populations have declined across the northern half of their range which is restricted to portions of Alabama, Georgia and Florida. In the northern part, indigos depend on Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) to dig underground refuges to escape thermal extremes. Indigo snakes’ reliance on tortoises and their associated habitats are one of the main reasons for their decline. Both of these animals’ declines are linked to the conversion of their native longleaf ecosystem with its frequent fires to other anthropomorphic areas that exclude fire. Once the dominant habitat in the southeast, it now only occupies about 3% of its former range. However, recently concerted efforts to restore the ecosystem and its imperiled wildlife have begun. In Alabama, one such project aims to restore viable populations of indigo snakes.
Numbers of indigo snakes have historically been low in Alabama, and at one time they were likely extirpated. The last wild indigo snake documented in the state was found in 1952. While people have reported seeing them, no one has been able to produce verifiable evidence since then. However, our state is leading the way in efforts to reestablish these snakes back upon the landscape. In the 1980’s, Auburn started to try reintroducing indigo snakes around the southeast. Surveys of these sites in 2004 indicated that these reintroductions did not produce robust viable populations. So we decided to try it again. After sitting down with the people involved in the original reintroductions and discussing what went wrong the first time, we formulated a plan to bring the indigo back to Alabama for good.
The current project started in 2008. To get snakes to reintroduce, we went to Georgia where the last good populations exist in the northern half of the range. We collected females with eggs and brought them back to our lab at Auburn. Once the eggs were laid, the female went back right where she was caught. The eggs were then hatched and the young were raised for two years prior to release so that they would be big enough to avoid most predators. We started releasing snakes in 2010 and since then close to 100 snakes have been released. We hope to release 200 more in the coming years. For the first three years, a portion of the snakes were monitored using radio telemetry. This has helped us to elucidate home range, survival, and habitat use. All snakes released for the project are implanted with a microchip to help us keep track of them. The ultimate goal now is to find one that does not have a chip indicating that it was born in the wild!
So what does education have to do with reintroducing indigo snakes? Well, quite a lot. Education is integral to the success of this project. While some of this has occurred in traditional settings like classrooms and scientific meetings, some of the most important teaching is far removed from the stuffy academic atmosphere. We get out there and talk with the people that are likely to encounter these creatures. Going to the local gas station and meeting folks and introducing them to these amazing animals, or hanging around the hunters’ check station talking with people has had a tremendous impact on the success of the project. These are often the people who see an indigo while on the road and have the choice to run it down or stop and let it pass. One story I always bring up is of a lady at a nearby camp. She “hates” snakes, but after showing her an indigo and talking about how important they are, she said she would not kill them. This was later proved when she came upon one crossing the paved road on the camp. She swerved off the road to miss the snake then went and got the some people to come down and act as crossing guards to protect the snake till it moved off the road. I think this maybe the only time in south Alabama that a snake ever got protection crossing the road. Since then, I have noticed people actually go out of their way to avoid harming an indigo, proving that all the time and effort we are putting into educating the public about the importance of indigoes on our landscape is paying off. Hopefully, indigo snakes will soon be a permanent fixture in south Alabama.
– All photos by Jimmy Stiles