For the first time since 1954, biologists found evidence that the federally protected eastern indigo snake is breeding on its own in Alabama.
A collection of government agencies and universities have been trying to reintroduce the indigo snake for years in the Conecuh National Forest in south Alabama, and a young, 27-inch snake captured last week appears to be the offspring of the reintroduced apex predator.
“We’re releasing these snakes that are all generally about two years old, with the hope, and the expectation that eventually the snakes will survive from year to year and breed in the wild,” said Jim Godwin, a biologist with the Alabama Natural Heritage Program at Auburn University, who is leading the indigo restoration efforts in Alabama.
“It’s very exciting for us to find this young snake that confirms one measure of success that we’ve been after all along.”
The indigo snake reintroduction program is part of an attempt to restore Alabama’s longleaf pine forest ecosystem, where the indigo snake serves as the top predator. It is not venomous, and literally eats copperheads and rattlesnakes for breakfast.
The eastern indigo snake is the longest snake native to North America, reaching lengths of up to nine feet, though more typically maxing out at around seven feet long.
While missing from Alabama since the 1950s, the indigo snake is still hanging on in Florida and south Georgia. Now, for the first time in seven decades, the eastern indigo is reproducing on its own in Alabama.
Over decades, the combination of habitat loss, collection for the pet trade and “gassing” in rattlesnake rodeos put the species on the brink of extinction. The indigo earned a listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“The snake was a part of Alabama,” Godwin said. “Not well known, but a part of Alabama and southern Alabama. And as the importance of the longleaf pine ecosystem has really come out in the last couple of decades, we’ve been missing pieces of that, restoring that ecosystem.”
Longleaf pine forests, which once covered much of the Southeast, have been reduced to about 3 percent of their historic range. The remaining longleaf forests are mostly in isolated clusters like Conecuh National Forest.
Godwin said the efforts to reintroduce the snake are in their 14th year, with more than 160 snakes released into the wild since 2010. All snakes released are about two years old and carry unique tags so that researchers can identify the snakes if they’re recaptured.
The snake captured this month was estimated to be about seven to eight months old and did not carry a tag. Godwin said he did not want to provide additional details about the snake’s location because there are still concerns about poaching.
Godwin said the snake was discovered by a research team from Auburn investigating gopher tortoise burrows in the National Forest. Indigo snakes are closely associated with gopher tortoise burrows in Alabama, especially in the winter. Godwin said the snakes will take shelter in the burrows on cold days, and roam about looking to reproduce on warm, sunny days during the winter.
By Dennis Pillion