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Auburn University working to restore threatened species to native Alabama habitat

Published: 05/20/2011

The copperhead is responsible for more venomous snake bites in the Southeastern U.S. than any other snake, and their populations are increasing. In south Alabama population growth of the copperhead may be due in part to the absence of the once-prevalent eastern indigo snake.

“Copperheads used to be a very rare snake to see in south Alabama,” said Professor and Herpetologist with Auburn’s Department of Biological Sciences Craig Guyer. “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.”

The largest snake in the U.S., the eastern indigo may once again have a thriving presence in extreme south Alabama thanks to a collaborative effort between Auburn University and various agencies interested in the preservation of this threatened species. A glossy bluish-black snake with lighter, almost reddish coloring around the chin, throat and sides of the face, adult eastern indigos can often reach lengths in excess of eight feet long. The non-venomous eastern indigo is native to Alabama; however, there have been no verified sightings of the snake since the 1950s. Currently the eastern indigo can only be found in parts of Florida and southern Georgia. Classified in 1978 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species, this large, rare snake is thought to be extirpated from Alabama. Disappearance of the eastern indigo is a result of 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, collectors selling the snakes in the pet trade, and road death.

In an effort to reintroduce the eastern indigo to its native habitat in Alabama, Auburn University was a leader in raising 17 juvenile snakes on campus and releasing them in spring 2010 into the Conecuh National Forest. Half of the snakes were released in natural-but-enclosed areas initially and then set free after a month. The other half were released directly into the wild. The snakes were implanted with Passive Integrated Transponders and radio transmitters for tracking purposes. Craig Guyer's graduate students Jimmy and Sierra Stiles live near Conecuh National Forest and are tracking the progress of the snakes for their theses. They hope to answer questions about the snake's range, habits and survival once released.

"The morning after the 2010 release, the first snake Jimmy and Sierra located was found eating a copperhead," said Jim Godwin, zoologist with the Auburn University Environmental Institute.

"Besides eating copperheads, these snakes are important because in the past, they were an important component of the long leaf pine ecosystem and a top predator of the long leaf pine ecosystem. In order to restore the long leaf ecosystem, we have to put all the pieces of the ecosystem in place," Godwin said. "Also, this species is a federally threatened species. In order to remove that threat we have to increase the population. If we can do that, this would be one step toward the recovery of the species."Godwin is the Primary Investigator for a State Wildlife grant from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The funding allowed Godwin to plan a second release of more than 30 eastern indigo snakes on Monday, May 16 in the Conecuh National Forest. All 30 snakes were born at Auburn University in 2009 and 2010 and then sent to Zoo Atlanta who raised them for two years. Prior to the release, the snakes returned to Auburn and were implanted with Passive Integrated Transponders, a unique tag similar to those used in pets, and radio transmitters, a device used to track individual snakes. Like the 2010 release, half of the snakes were released into natural-but-enclosed areas and the rest were sent into the wild.

The work at Auburn University is supported by numerous contributing agencies including Alabama Department of Conservation, The Orianne Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, and Zoo Atlanta. Representatives from these agencies were present at the release, as was the Auburn University Society for Conservation Biology, or SCB. SCB is a student organization dedicated to promoting the scientific study of the phenomena that affect the maintenance, loss and restoration of biological diversity. Last year, students from the organization helped prepare the natural-but-enclosed snake pens and were on hand for the 2011 release. Early indications from last year's release reveal some success as two female eastern indigo snakes were found with eggs.

"We are hoping that means at least two clutches of eggs will be deposited in Conecuh National Forest, and that would be the first time this has happened in at least 60 years," Guyer said. "We hope to come back in another five years and find a snake that doesn't have one of our tags on it, because that would indicate they are reproducing in the field."

For more information on Auburn University's efforts to reestablish the eastern indigo snake to the wild, visit Craig Guyer's lab website  or receive updates from Jimmy and Sierra Stiles by "liking" the Alabama Chapter of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, or ALAPARC, Facebook page.

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