AUBURN - Auburn University is partnering with conservation and wildlife officials to help the eastern indigo snake, the largest snake in the U.S. and a threatened species, once again become a thriving presence in Alabama.
On June 16, Auburn researchers, along with conservation agencies from both Alabama and Georgia, released 17 juvenile eastern indigo snakes into the Conecuh National Forest near Andalusia. Eight of the snakes were released into 2.5-acre natural enclosures, while the remaining snakes were released into the forest.
"The presence of the eastern indigo snake indicates a healthy and balanced environment," Auburn professor and herpetologist Craig Guyer explained.
"Returning the eastern indigo snake to the south Alabama landscape not only restores a piece of the natural history of the state, but also helps to control the population of venomous snakes like copperheads, which have become prevalent in Alabama."
Auburn and Zoo Atlanta shared the responsibility of raising the snakes until they were mature enough to be implanted with Passive Integrated Transponders, as well as radio transmitters, which are used to monitor the location and survival of the snakes once they are reintroduced to their natural habitat.
Guyer and graduate student Jimmy Stiles will monitor the location and survival rate of the snakes using the transmitters, which send out radio signals specific to each snake.
"I would consider this release a success if we come back to Conecuh National Forest in 10 years and discover eastern indigo snakes that do not have implanted transponders, because that would mean the snake population is increasing on its own," Guyer said.
Guyer says he also believes that a successful reintroduction of the eastern indigo snake to south Alabama will result in a healthier, more balanced natural environment.
"Copperheads used to be a very rare snake to see in south Alabama," Guyer said. "Now copperheads are the most commonly occurring snake in the region. Eastern indigo snakes eat other snakes, including venomous snakes like copperheads, and the decline of the eastern indigo snake has corresponded to an increase in copperheads."
Within the first day of tracking the snakes after their release, the largest of them was found consuming a three-foot copperhead.
Eastern indigos also eat small mammals, lizards and frogs, all of which are abundant in both the natural enclosures and the Conecuh National Forest as a whole.
If the snakes remain in the Conecuh National Forest habitat, their survival rate should increase. Regular prescribed burns in the forest allow longleaf pines, which dominate the area, to mature, resulting in open stands of trees with a healthy understory of grasses.
This understory is essential for gopher tortoise survival. Eastern indigo snakes, in turn, utilize gopher tortoise burrows as havens during extreme weather conditions.
The ongoing project began three years ago when students in Guyer's lab went to southern Georgia and collected gravid female eastern indigos and brought them back to Auburn to lay their eggs. After they laid their eggs, the female snakes were returned to their native habitat. The eggs were then incubated and 17 eastern indigos were hatched.
Last October, a group of Auburn students active in the Society for Conservation Biology held a weekend workday in Conecuh National Forest, where students, along with faculty and administrators from the College of Sciences and Mathematics, spent the day preparing six, natural-but-enclosed habitats that would be ideal for eastern indigo snakes.
They cut down small trees to build brush piles to shelter the snakes and repaired sections of the fence that had been damaged by falling limbs in preparation for the June release.
Adult eastern indigos can reach lengths in excess of eight feet. They are a glossy bluish-black with lighter, almost reddish coloring around the chin, throat and sides of the face. Although the non-venomous eastern indigo snake is native to Alabama, there have been no verified sightings of the snake since the 1960s. Currently, the eastern indigo can only be found in parts of Florida and South Georgia.
The snakes were classified in 1978 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species, and then they seemed to disappear altogether from Alabama due to a variety of factors including a dwindling of their natural habitat, changes in forest types and tree harvest cycles, a decrease in the use of fire as a forest-management tool, a decline in gopher tortoise populations, collectors selling the snakes in the pet trade, and road death.
Auburn University plans to continue its efforts to reintroduce eastern indigos to Alabama, and currently has more eggs incubating in anticipation of another release next year.
The Auburn reintroduction project is supported by a number of partners including Alabama Department of Conservation, Project Orianne, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service and Zoo Atlanta.