Closeup of an Eastern indigo snake crawling on the ground.
Eastern Indigo Snake This male will be released at Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines preserve. © OCIC Central Florida Zoo

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26 Indigo Snakes Released in Sixth Annual Effort to Return the Important Native Species to the Region

Multiple partners continue collaboration to bring apex predator back to TNC's Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve.

Today, 26 young eastern indigo snakes were released in northern Florida, marking the sixth consecutive year of a collaborative program to return the native, non-venomous apex predator to the region. The multi-partner 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, the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens’ Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), 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 26 snakes bring the total number of indigos released to the property to date to 107.

The preserve is the ideal location for reintroducing this integral snake species, and that is thanks to the decades of conservation work conducted on-site by TNC and our partners.

TNC Florida Director of Center for Conservation Initiatives

"Releasing twenty-six eastern indigo snakes today at The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve is a great achievement for us and our partners. It’s the spirit of collaboration at the center of this project that has made it possible for us to reach the six-year milestone. The preserve is the ideal location for reintroducing this integral snake species, and that is thanks to the decades of conservation work conducted on-site by TNC and our partners,” said Steve Coates, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Center for Conservation Initiatives (CCI).

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 ecosystem. It serves a critical function to balance the wildlife community by consuming a variety of small animals including both venomous and non-venomous snakes. At over eight-feet long, the indigo often relies upon gopher tortoise burrows for shelter during cold weather. 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.

In the past year numerous snakes from multiple releases have been observed on ABRP. Along with traditional foot surveys, Michelle Hoffman (TNC/Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens) has started using field cameras at the mouths of tortoise burrows and PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag readers that can detect snakes as they pass by. Field cameras have taken hundreds of photos of indigos in five different locations.

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 specialist species. 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 plants and animals. The preserve is a living laboratory for the development of restoration techniques and land management excellence. Our Center for Conservation Initiatives brings ABRP and TNC’s other campus preserves together to advance conservation through education and training, outreach and volunteerism, science and research, innovation and land stewardship in Florida.

Only five percent of the longleaf pine ecosystem remains globally. Over the past 30-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 TNC's robust prescribed fire program, resulted in improved longleaf habitat on over 100,000 public and private north Florida acres in recent years. Controlled burning has been used by Native American Tribes across North America for thousands of years to encourage wild food plants, improve habitat for local animals and reduce the likelihood of destructive wildfires.

A man releases an Eastern indigo snake, which crawls into a gopher tortoise burrow.
Indigo Snake Release TNC staff and partners release eastern indigo snakes into their natural habitat. The reptiles use gopher tortoise burrows for protection. © Tim Donovan/FWC

The 26 two-year-old snakes released at ABRP were bred and hatched by the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens' 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 2020, the 15 males and 11 females 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 PIT-tags by the Central Florida Zoo's veterinary staff to allow for identification when encountered after release.

“The entire OCIC team is honored to be a part of the reintroduction efforts of this iconic top-predator. The scientific name for the eastern indigo snake, Drymarchon couperi, roughly translates into 'Emperor of the forest!' It brings us great joy (and a bit of pride) to see the captive breeding program's offspring be released into the wild, where they can reclaim their position as emperor of the longleaf pine ecosystem," 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.

“This year is real special in that we are getting over the 100-snake milestone in the reintroduction program. With that many snakes having been released, we are hoping to detect reproduction soon,” said David Printiss, Florida Fire Manager/North America Fire Specialist, 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.

“The FWC is again proud to participate in the indigo snake release project which has now reached the milestone of releasing more than 100 snakes at the study area. This achievement is due to great teamwork from all of the project partners, including The Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many others. The next benchmark for success of this project is detecting that snakes are reproducing at the site, and we are hopeful that we will find that evidence in the near future,” noted Jennifer Goff, Deputy Director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation.

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.

Additional funding to support the reintroduction has been provided by Southern Company through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

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 2023— stay tuned.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories—37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners—we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.