Large black snakes slithering through the woods aren’t the first thing most Alabamians want to see, but researchers at Auburn University (AU) are hoping the sight will become more common.
The eastern indigo snake, a non-venomous, federally protected species native to the Southeastern longleaf pine region, hasn’t been seen in Alabama since the 1950s. The region includes Florida, southeast Georgia, south Alabama and southwest Mississippi. The reason for its disappearance, said Jim Godwin of AU’s Alabama Natural Heritage Program (ANHP), is the loss of longleaf pine ecosystems throughout the state.
“It had to do with the conversion of forests to other land uses, accompanied by the decline of the gopher tortoise,” Godwin said. “Eastern indigo snakes require gopher tortoise burrows and stump holes during winter. Along with conversion of forests, we had a removal of stump holes and burrows. In doing so, that’s removing a critical microhabitat for the snake.”
An effort in the ‘80s to repopulate the snake failed, but researchers gave the project a second glance in 2006.
David Steen of AU’s ANHP said the Conecuh National Forest was selected as a reintroduction site because of its gopher tortoise population, acreage and longleaf pine management practices.
“We knew there were a lot of tortoises in the area, and that’s why the site was picked,” he said. “Indigo snakes are unique in that not only do they use a large amount of land, but they use different habitats in different times of the year.”
Godwin described the eastern indigo snake as an apex predator, meaning it’s at the top of the food chain, often feeding on venomous snakes.
So far, 107 snakes out of a planned 300 have been released in the Conecuh National Forest with the help of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Zoo Atlanta, Orianne Society in Orlando, Florida, and Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC).
Pregnant female snakes captured in Georgia were incubated at Auburn and bred at Zoo Atlanta and OCIC for two years before being released in the Conecuh National Forest. The goal is to place a self-sustaining population of snakes there. Godwin and Steen said future releases will rely on snakes born and raised at OCIC.
Alabama Farmers Federation Secretary-Treasurer Steve Dunn is a Conecuh County native. He grew up hunting and walking in the woods when he wasn’t working on the family farm, and at 59, he said he’s never seen an eastern indigo snake.
“A snake that large would definitely catch my attention, and I’m no fan of snakes,” he said. “But I do understand the importance of a balanced ecosystem. I think educating landowners in and around the area where the snakes are reintroduced will help increase their survival. The fact they eat venomous snakes definitely will.”
The Blue Lake Methodist Camp in Andalusia is in the Conecuh National Forest. Camp Executive Director Steve Lewandoski said the facility will use recently discovered eastern indigo snakes as a learning opportunity for summer campers.
“One of the things we do at Blue Lake is connect people with God’s creations,” he said. “It’s not just the sunset and the lake, but it involves animals as well. With the curriculum and summer camp, we’re expressing the need for all of God’s creations to be in the world.”
Overall, Steen said, the idea of conservation, no matter the animal, plant or geographic region is a part of something much deeper.
“When we lose any species -— regardless of whether it’s a snake we fear, deer we feed or birds we listen to — we lose of a piece of our cultural heritage and a piece of our natural heritage,” he said. “That’s why we should care about these things. The relationship with our natural world is an important thing. Sometimes we don’t miss it until it’s gone, and then it’s too late.”
• The eastern indigo snake is the longest snake in North America and may reach a length of 8.5 feet.
• The snake may be entirely blue-black or may have red, reddish-orange or cream coloration on the chin, throat or cheeks.
• Indigo snakes feed on other snakes, specifically all venomous snake species native to the Southeastern U.S., turtles, mammals, frogs, birds and lizards.
• Indigo snakes breed from October to February, lay eggs during May and June and are active at temperatures as low as 40 F.
• Eastern indigo snakes are at the top of the food chain in the longleaf pine ecosystem.
Source: Jim Godwin, Auburn University Alabama Natural Heritage Program