Put it down to natural antipathy or an ancient prejudice that has lodged in our amygdala. Or maybe it’s simply because snakes have been vilified throughout time and art from the Book of Genesis to Harry Potter (millennia of negative publicity can have that effect). For whatever reason, most people just don’t like them. So why are so many government agencies and conservation groups, starting with The Nature Conservancy in Florida, so ecstatic about the recent release of 12 little snakes in a north Florida preserve?
For starters, the eastern indigo is not so little. The longest snake native to the U.S., it grows up to nine feet long, as sleek as a stair bannister, with conspicuous scales as black/blue and lustrous as the sky at the end of sunset. From a public relations standpoint, it doesn’t hurt that it’s non-venomous, docile (not aggressive even when cornered) and, at least as far as its diet goes, fond of its fellow snakes, particularly the venomous kind. A daytime hunter, it was once a common sight throughout Florida, right up into Georgia, southern Alabama and southeastern Mississippi. By 1978, however, its numbers had so declined it was one of the earliest entries on the list of protected wildlife under the Federal Endangered Species Act, victim to that natural antipathy, cars and the steady degradation of its habitat.
David Printiss, North Florida Program Manager holds a 3-year old eastern indigo snake from the Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation. © Bill Boothe, PhotoNaturalist / NatureInFocus.com
But the eastern indigo is more than beautiful, benign and beleaguered. Like every great symbol, it’s important, not just for what it is, but for what it represents.
The reason it has cut to the front of the reintroduction lineup is because it’s a vital piece in a vast and intricate conservation puzzle that has occupied the Conservancy and its partners for the last 35 years. When those 12 zoo-raised eastern indigos were released in the Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve (ABRP) on July 17, it symbolized success for an impressive partnership that, in addition to the Conservancy, includes Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation. Auburn University, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Orianne Society, the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Gulf Power, the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, the U.S. Forest Service and Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The Nature Conservancy's David Printiss holding an eastern indigo snake prior to its reintroduction, standing among Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) partners and next to Dr. Thomas Eason, Division Director of Habitat and Species Conservation, FWC. © Bill Boothe, PhotoNaturalist/NatureInFocus.com
That’s a lot of attention focused on one not-so-little snake.
The ABRP was not an arbitrary choice for the snakes’ return. Originating, poetically enough, with a tract of land called the Garden of Eden, the preserve is today one of Florida conservation’s greatest success stories. After 35 years of restoration efforts by the Conservancy and its partners, it now contains 6,295 acres of perfectly restored Florida longleaf pine, a vast forest system that once flourished throughout the state, north to Virginia and west to Southern Texas, but is now reduced to only 5 percent of its original map.
Longleaf pine forest at Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. © David Printiss
“Patient restoration efforts, including groundcover restoration, prescribed burns and replanting have fully restored the ABRP, part of a region that is now considered one of the five most important biological hotspots in North America,” says David Printiss, the North Florida Program Manager for the Conservancy. A lush mosaic of habitats, the preserve has an “Eden-esque” beauty, forested with pines, cut with ravines and streams, and carpeted in mile after mile of waving wiregrass. As this flora returned, so did the fauna and today the landscape is alive with gopher tortoises, bob white quail, and Florida pine snakes.
An eastern indigo snake hunts a copperhead snake at the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. © Sara Piccolomini
But there was a missing piece. Yes, you guessed it, our eastern indigo snake. As an apex predator, the species plays a vital role as a counterweight in the natural balance, a consumer of otherwise unchecked species, especially snakes. Eastern indigos had been noticeably absent from the party since the last ones were spotted at the ABRP in 1982, by coincidence the very year that the Conservancy began to acquire the land. Many endemic species, particularly songbirds, have likely suffered from the imbalance. While conservationists are not given to displays of unalloyed optimism, it’s cautiously whispered that the reintroduction of the eastern indigo could be as significant in its own way as the reintroduction of timber wolves in Yellowstone.
Several groups heading out to release eastern indigo snakes. © Fran Perchick/The Nature Conservancy
And so it was that, on a warm day in mid-July, over 60 people gathered in the pine shade in the middle of the ABRP to witness the historic release, the first in Florida for the eastern indigo in 30 years. Cameras flashed, quotes were collected and a handful of major news organizations treated the newcomers like scaled celebrities. Amid the fanfare, a decade-long reintroduction program was officially launched and 12 camera-shy eastern indigos were placed by the mouths of carefully selected gopher-tortoise burrows (in a convivial arrangement, these snakes like to share these burrows). Bred and raised by Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC), each snake had been tagged with a subcutaneous radio transmitter and a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag.
Chief Veterinary Officer of the Central Florida Zoo, Dr. James Bogan conducts the transmitter procedure with the eastern indigo snake. © Central Florida Zoo
Free to explore their new home, they are now being monitored fulltime by Sara Piccolomini, a Master’s graduate student from the Department of Biological Sciences at Auburn University in central Alabama. “Auburn has a long history with eastern indigos dating back to the 1970s, including two earlier reintroductions in Alabama,” explains David Steen, the Assistant Research Professor overseeing the research and monitoring program. “We will be monitoring the snakes throughout the battery life of the transmitters (18 to 24 months) using radio telemetry, then subsequently using the PIT tags (similar to the identification chips used for domestic pets), measuring their survival rate, reproduction, preferred habitats, and the distances they cover.”
Auburn University graduate student Sara Piccolomini tracking a released eastern indigo snake. © Fran Perchick/The Nature Conservancy
The July 17 release was just the beginning of a broad and ambitious campaign to reintroduce more eastern indigos in the ABRP and later, depending on the success rate and availability of snakes (they are not easy to breed in captivity), to other parts of their historic range. “The 10-year plan is to release approximately 300 eastern indigos in the preserve,” says Michele Elmore, the lead biologist for the eastern indigo for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who is responsible for coordinating the snake’s recovery efforts. “For the first time in a long time, other parts of the Panhandle are being restored to the point that they too will be ready for reintroductions. Our ultimate goal is to establish and protect enough viable populations that we can remove the eastern indigo from the list of protected wildlife.”
Eastern indigo snake just after release to a gopher tortoise burrow. © Tim Donovan/Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Throughout time and art, the snake has always been a symbol. The 12 eastern indigos now happily curled up in gopher-tortoise burrows in the ABRP are just the latest upholders of that long tradition. Conservation efforts aren’t finite. They rarely, if ever, reach a point at which you can sit back, however briefly, and say to yourself “this worked.” And that’s why the release of these snakes is so important. It symbolizes success. “We’ve spent 35 years restoring the longleaf pine sandhill of the ABRP, getting it to a point of perfect ecological balance,” explains Printiss from the Conservancy, the excitement clear in his voice. “It’s now ready. The snake has returned to Eden and one of the last pieces of the puzzle has slithered into place.”