What’s the first thing you do when you see a snake in your yard? Run? Chase it away? The stigma around snakes is that they are nothing more than something to fear in your yard or a nuisance to get rid of. However, like all animals in the world, they are an essential species to the environment. They are a key link in the ecosystems food chain acting as both predator and prey, and help ensure that our ecosystem and environment continue to run smoothly and efficiently. In the southern parts of the United States, the Eastern Indigo Snake population has taken a hit due to the destruction of the pine leaf ecosystem. With the help of partners, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are taking the next steps in reintroducing the Eastern Indigo Snake into southern Alabama and northwest Florida, helping to restore the population to a healthy sustainable level.
This reintroduction program was initiated in the early 2000's with the establishment of the Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Committee; however, habitat restoration at the eastern indigo snake reintroduction sites has been taking place for much longer. Partners have been working to reestablish the eastern indigo snake in areas where the species has been extirpated for many years. In 2014, the Central Florida Zoo partnered with the Orianne Society to operate the captive propagation center, Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC) that was established by the Orianne Society around 2011. Currently the Welaka National Fish Hatchery is head starting between 20 and 35 snakes each year to aid in these efforts. Between 2010 and 2019, 169 eastern indigo snakes have been released in the Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama. Between 2017 and 2019, 47 eastern indigo snakes have been released in The Nature Conservancy's Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve in the Florida Panhandle. This long term reintroduction program is part of a multi-partner effort including: US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ALDCNR), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation, Orianne Society, Auburn University, The Nature Conservancy, US Forest Service, Zoo Atlanta, Welaka National Fish Hatchery, Zoo Tampa, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Alabama Natural Heritage Museum, and others.
In 2018 additional partners were added to the Eastern Indigo Snake reintroduction efforts: The Welaka National Fish Hatchery and Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park. The Welaka National Fish Hatchery constructed a room for the purpose of head starting Eastern Indigo Snake prior to release. They obtained 10 Eastern Indigo Snake from the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation in January 2018 which were raised for the last four months of their two-year head start period at the hatchery and then released into the wild. In August 2018, the Welaka National Fish Hatchery received 24 Eastern Indigo Snake which were hatched in 2016 from the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation and they were raised until June 2019 when they were released. This year, the Welaka National Fish Hatchery is housing 30 Eastern Indigo Snake until 2020 when they are scheduled for release. All of these snakes were bred and hatched at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation for the purpose of reintroduction. In early 2018, Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park received five Eastern Indigo Snake to raise until they were ready for release in the spring of 2018. After these five snakes were released, they received another five which were released in spring 2019. They have not received snakes for head starting after the five were released in 2019, but will be attempting to breed Eastern Indigo Snake for education and display purposes utilizing newly constructed outdoor enclosures and a designated Eastern Indigo Snake rearing space. Zoo Atlanta, one of the EIS reintroduction program’s original partners for head starting Eastern Indigo Snake prior to release, housed snakes involved in the program up until 2017. Zoo Atlanta is currently constructing an area specifically for rearing Eastern Indigo Snake for the program and will receive snakes soon.
With increase in populations within facilities multiple AZA facilities have expressed interest in obtaining Eastern Indigo Snakes for their facilities. The Species Survival Plan (SSP) is working to fulfill these needs using the animals at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation and other AZA breeding facilities. Many snakes transferred to other zoo’s from the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation are offspring of wild males and females that were acquired from non-AZA sources and have unknown lineages. In order to make more informed breeding recommendations, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Auburn University, and the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation partnered to acquire funds which include genetic screening of snakes at zoos and aquariums with unknown lineages. Additional funding supporting the captive propagation of Eastern Indigo Snake at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation for reintroduction efforts has accumulated ~$152,000. These funds are used to cover veterinary expenses at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation as well as veterinary costs of snakes at the Welaka National Fish Hatchery which utilizes the veterinarian for the Central Florida Zoo. They have also covered enclosure costs, disease testing, and a full-time temporary position at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation and incubation materials. The funding support for reintroduction efforts include: Conserve Wildlife Tag (FWC) award, Cooperative Agreement between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Orianne Society, Conservation Fund through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Fish and Wildlife Fund via the Nature Conservancy.
The reintroduction efforts for the Eastern Indigo Snake are only the beginning of building a healthy sustainable population. With the continuous help and support from partnerships and AZA facilities, the Eastern Indigo Snake is on its way to becoming a thriving species in the southern U.S. and continue to play a vital role in our ecosystem.