Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Indigo Snake Found Last Week in Southwestern Georgia! --Guest Post--

    Like many other people these days I finally succumbed to the allure of social media and created a personal Facebook page; the main benefit for me is that it has allowed me to hear from lots of old friends. Another benefit is getting tagged in those, "Hey what is this critter?" posts I'm sure all other biologists probably get. Usually, the critter ends up being some spider in a garage or a tree frog in a toilet, but every once in a while there is a day when something really awesome pops up. This past Tuesday was one of those days! 

This is one of those pictures you just dream of getting.
    An old friend, Leslie, send me a private message: "Hey, Roger! Apparently, you're still my go-to southern snake expert. This snake (on right) was picked up in southwestern Georgia near my family farm. Is it an indigo?! Here’s the story I got: The snake had come into the carport to get warm near a heat lamp. No, the snake was not harmed." 

    The first thing I noticed was that the snake was indeed unharmed. This was a relief because I always cringe when I open pictures of snakes that I am sent to identify; usually all that remains is a mangled corpse barely recognizable as a snake, let alone whatever species it was before dear aunt Mildred did a twelve point turn over it with the riding mulching mower.

    Second, Leslie’s identification of the snake as an Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) is correct. This was particularly exciting because not only are Eastern Indigo Snakes Federally Threatened, but very few have ever been documented in southwestern Georgia. Getting the identification correct was certainly made easier because Leslie is a biologist and Mike (in picture, above) had obviously done his homework long ago, already having a good idea of what he had found before he asked anyone. At this point we can play the usual "Steen ID Challenge" and identify what features let us know that this is indeed an Eastern Indigo Snake. Feel free to leave your answers in the comments below. 

    The third thing that jumped out at me is that although we all have had people tell us that they have seen something strange or rare, without documentation it is just an anecdote. Mike had the good sense to grab a camera and snap a photo. 

    Needless to say after my initial excitement I knew that John Jensen from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Dirk Stevenson from the Orianne Society needed to be told about this find because this snake could represent a previously unknown population of Indigo Snakes, an exciting development for the future of this very rare species. I dutifully passed their contact information on to Leslie and encouraged her to make sure they were contacted. It took a few days but the proper authorities were contacted and the find is in the process of being officially documented.

    I feel it is appropriate to address the fact that although most people that are reading this blog post would probably jump for joy at finding an endangered species on their land, not everyone feels the same way because of fears associated with federal involvement. I would like to try and allay some of those fears now. First, the federal government is not immediately going to step in and confiscate your land if you find an endangered species on it. In fact, I don’t know of any cases where the government has seized someone’s land. Second, most federal agencies will acknowledge that because an endangered species was living on your property, however you had been managing your land likely must have been working to some degree for the species in question. As long as the land continues to be managed like it was before, they are probably not going to try to make you do anything much different

    In fact, if you find a federally listed species on your land, you will suddenly become eligible for assistance and advice from many interested government agencies and non-governmental organizations. In addition, these agencies and organizations will also likely be able to provide you with funding to help you to manage your land in a way that works both for you and also the rare species. Yes, there might be a catch that comes with that money, like a long-term agreement to not develop your land (i.e., a conservation easement) but if you truly care about the health of your land you will still come out ahead. 

    More than 90% of the land in Georgia (and in most of the other states east of the Mississippi River for that matter) is privately owned. Therefore private lands are key to the long-term conservation of imperiled species. Those of us working in conservation need to be mindful of this fact by appreciating private landowners that manage their land in a way that’s compatible with wildlife and also by respecting property rights. 

    I for one commend Mike on his great fortune in seeing a snake on his family land that most herpetologists only dream of finding in the wild. In addition his appreciation for the natural world was readily apparent in his decision to carefully move this snake out of his carport and to a safer location right nearby and photograph this snake rather than harm it. I look forward to hearing future reports about this location (which for obvious reasons shall remain secret…so don’t bother to pester David for a more specific locality) and its potential role in the understanding of Indigo snake biology and conservation. 

    My final thought was that I wanted to share this find with my other friends in the herpetological community so that they could enjoy this significant development in Indigo Snake conservation and to lend their voice in congratulating Mike for doing everything right. We all preach conservation and education, so here is our chance to congratulate someone for following that message. I hope that Leslie and Mike enjoy what follows in the comments section below!


Roger Birkhead is a biologist with the Alabama Science In Motion program. He received his Master's in herpetology from Auburn University in the same lab as David Steen. His Master’s research focused on the foraging behavior of Gopher Tortoises and their role as seed dispersers in the Longleaf Pine ecosystem. He also spent five years at the Jones Ecological Research Center and many previous years as a field technician working on many national forests and military bases in the southeast. In his spare time he enjoys being a dad, gardening and woodworking.

Relevant Scientific Articles

K.M. Enge, D. J. Stevenson, M. J. Elliot, & J. M. Bauder (2013). The historical and current distribution of the eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) Herpetological Conservation and Biology, 8 (2), 288-307

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