TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Today, a dozen young eastern indigo snakes have been released in northern Florida, marking the fifth year of a 10-year program to return the native, non-venomous apex predator to the region. A multi-partner collaborative effort brings the snakes, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, to The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve (ABRP) in Bristol, to create a growing population to support species recovery in this ideal protected habitat.
The eastern indigo species recovery effort in North Florida is the long-term joint commitment of multiple nonprofit, agency, and academic partners including: The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens’ Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Zoo Atlanta, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service), Welaka National Fish Hatchery, The Orianne Society, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Southern Company through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida. The partners have worked together for decades to restore and manage the habitat required by the snake, and many other species, to make the release possible.
Raised specifically for release, the 12 snakes bring the total number of indigos released to the property to date to 81.
“Today’s snake release marks the five year milestone of the species recovery effort at The Nature Conservancy’s Aapalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve and continues the longstanding collaborative effort among partners dedicated to securing a future for this beautiful and important animal in north Florida,” said Steve Coates, Director, Stewardship and Field Programs, The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “We continue to protect, manage and restore the species and landscapes that are critical to supporting nature across our state.”
The eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) is the longest snake native to North America and an iconic and essential component of the now rare southern longleaf pine forest. It serves a critical function to balance the wildlife community—it consumes a variety of small animals including both venomous and non venomous snakes. At over eight-feet long, the impressive indigo often relies upon gopher tortoise burrows for shelter. The snakes were historically found in southern Georgia, Alabama, eastern Mississippi, and throughout Florida, though their range is now far more restricted. Largely eliminated from northern Florida due to habitat loss and fragmentation, the indigo was last observed at ABRP in 1982, until the species recovery effort began in 2017.
Indigos continue to be observed at ABRP in good health and are growing. Several of them have been observed during dormant season surveys of the upland release sites, and others have been observed— either directly or by snake skin observation—relatively long distances away from the release sites. Snakes from the second release (2018) have been recently observed, further confirming that they have what they need to thrive at the preserve. Now we are eagerly awaiting evidence of reproduction.
ABRP is the only site in Florida currently designated for indigo reintroduction. The 6,295-acre nature preserve in northern Florida’s Liberty County protects a large longleaf pine landscape carved by numerous seepage streams and is home to the gopher tortoise and the full suite of longleaf pine specialists. Located in the Apalachicola Bay region along the Apalachicola River, the preserve lies in the center of one of five biological hotspots in North America and is home to a great number of imperiled species. The preserve is a living laboratory for the development of restoration techniques and land management excellence, dedicated to natural community restoration, preservation of biodiversity, and education and training.
Only five percent of the longleaf pine ecosystem remains globally. Over the past thirty-plus years, The Nature Conservancy has employed science and technical expertise to develop the state-of-the-art groundcover restoration process that is now used by state, federal and private partners across the southeast to restore longleaf pine habitat. This restoration, combined with the Conservancy’s robust prescribed fire program, has resulted in improved longleaf habitat on over 100,000 public and private north Florida acres in recent years.
Longleaf pine restoration is also a top priority at places like the Apalachicola National Forest and Torreya State Park—both neighbors to ABRP and supported by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
The 12 two-year old snakes released at ABRP were bred and hatched by the Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC), the world’s foremost comprehensive-based conservation organization dedicated to the captive propagation and reintroduction of the eastern indigo snake. All hatched in 2019, the four females and eight males were raised for one year at the OCIC, and transferred to the Welaka National Fish Hatchery for an additional year in preparation for their release. The snakes have been implanted with passive integrated transponders “PIT-tags” by the Central Florida Zoo’s veterinary staff to allow for identification when encountered after release.
“Everyone at the OCIC has a great fondness for the eastern indigo snake and are proud to work every day with such an iconic species. We feel privileged to be able to contribute to their conservation though our captive breeding program. To be able to witness the offspring from the OCIC explore their new wild habitat at ABRP is truly heartwarming,” said Dr. James Bogan, Director, Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation.
The Welaka National Fish Hatchery, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is located along the St. Johns River in Putnam County, Florida. Known primarily for striped bass, channel catfish and bluegill, the hatchery also raises at-risk Florida grasshopper sparrows, in addition to indigo snakes. The snakes are fed a steady diet of dead mice, quail chicks and rainbow trout, and grow to about five feet in length before release.
“The eastern indigo release really exemplifies what the Service, and collaborative conservation, is all about these days,” said Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, the Service’s Regional Director for the South Atlantic-Gulf & Mississippi-Basin. “We’ve got a beautiful iconic species, excellent science, dedicated staff, partners, and a healthy longleaf pine ecosystem that’s home to all manner of at risk, threatened and endangered species. And the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, and surrounding lands, will play a crucial role in the nation’s push to conserve, connect and manage these important ecosystems.”
“Finding these snakes year after year is really a wonder – being raised initially in the laboratory we really wondered how well these animals would do. It is great to know that Mother Nature’s instincts are alive and well in these snakes!” said David Printiss, North Florida Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy in Florida.
The indigo reintroduction efforts are supported by grants and other funding, including a Conserve Wildlife Tag Grant from the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, funded through purchase of Conserve Wildlife Florida license plates and designated for conservation of non-game species and the habitats that support them.
“This is the fifth year we’ve had the opportunity to help indigo snakes rebound in these protected lands in the Florida panhandle,” said Jennifer Goff, Deputy Director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. “The longleaf pine ecosystem is crucial habitat for the success of this incredible native Florida snake, and we are grateful for the conservation efforts of our partners to re-establish this important species in the panhandle.”
Additional funding to support the reintroduction has been provided by Southern Company through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The Orianne Society was integral in the creation of the OCIC and the indigo snake reintroduction team and continues to play a role in reintroducing eastern indigo snakes into places they no longer occur. The Society works to conserve critical ecosystems for imperiled reptiles and amphibians, using science, applied conservation, and education.
The Nature Conservancy continues to focus on the establishment of healthy ecosystems through collaborative land, water, and wildlife conservation efforts, and throughout the state, pursues conservation projects and supports policy that protect natural systems for people and wildlife. Next year’s snake release will be scheduled for spring 2022— stay tuned.
–The Nature Conservancy