Wildlife experts celebrate discovery of two rare snake hatchlings
Conservationists recently found two wild eastern indigo snake hatchlings at the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, according to The Nature Conservancy (TNC), owner and manager of the over 6,000-acre preserve in Liberty County.
The discovery marks the first sighting in more than 40 years of the federally-threatened species in North Florida, according to TNC, which has spent seven years partnering with several other conservation groups on a species reintroduction program.
One key partner is the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens’ Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC) in Eustis, where staff breed eastern indigo snakes before tagging and releasing them into the wild at two designated areas: one in southern Alabama, and another in TNC’s nature preserve.
Over the last seven years, program partners released 126 adult snakes into the preserve. Those adult snakes were tagged with something like a microchip, so wildlife experts can identify and monitor them over time, according to OCIC Field Biologist Michelle Hoffman.
The two snake hatchlings were not tagged when experts recently found them, confirming they were born in the wild to eastern indigo snakes previously released through the program, per TNC.
Hoffman says it’s an encouraging sign the species reintroduction program is working.
“Finding evidence of reproduction is one of the biggest markers that we have looked for to determine the success of the reintroduction project,” Hoffman said. “It’s a big signal for us that it’s becoming successful.”
The eastern indigo snake is North America’s largest snake, growing up to nine feet long, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. But although they may look intimidating, Hoffman says eastern indigo snakes are gentle, nonvenomous and completely harmless to humans.
“They have a pretty strong bite, but they are probably one of the most reluctant snakes to bite,” Hoffman said.
Eastern indigo snakes play an important ecosystem regulator role: eating frogs, lizards, small mammals and other snakes, including venomous ones, Hoffman said. As an apex predator, they sit at the top of a food chain, facing no natural predators themselves.
“Without the eastern indigo snake, the apex predator, it could throw off the balance of the ecosystems,” Hoffman said.
Another important function of the eastern indigo snake is its relationship to the gopher tortoise, a species listed as threatened in Florida. As a commensal of the gopher tortoise, Hoffman says, the eastern indigo snake lives alongside the other species: relying on it, to some extent, but not directly harming it.
“[Eastern indigo snakes] share the same kind of ecosystem or niche as a gopher tortoise, and live alongside the gopher tortoise, within those burrows,” Hoffman said. “They rely heavily on gopher tortoise burrows to overwinter.”
The snakes use both active and inactive gopher tortoise burrows, and trail cameras in the preserve sometimes capture photos of eastern indigo snakes crawling out of burrows and right past gopher tortoises, without harming them, Hoffman said.
“They don’t seem to mind each other’s presence,” Hoffman said of the two species.
Today, more than 20 trail cameras capture millions of photos from gopher tortoise burrows deployed throughout the preserve, and Hoffman says OCIC needs help reviewing them all. The conservation center is working to launch a citizens’ scientist program next year that would allow volunteers to help review the trail photos online.
In the meantime, Hoffman says OCIC will work to expand its monitoring program, and keep looking for more new eastern indigo snakes.
Federal law prohibits harming the eastern indigo snake in any way, or removing it from the wild without a permit.