Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cinco de Snake-O Plus One (Guest Post by Jim Godwin)

Note: This is a Guest Post by Jim Godwin. Jim has spent decades working outside and conducting studies on the natural history and conservation of amphibians and reptiles. He has countless stories. I'm trying to convince him to contribute to this blog regularly; please help me encourage him in the Comments.

I have had a life-long interest in amphibians and reptiles from my early years in northeastern Arkansas where I had access to a great richness of snakes and turtles literally in my backyard.  I later found my way to Alabama, left for a few years, but returned when hired as zoologist with the Alabama Natural Heritage Program.  During my time with ALNHP we have had several homes before permanently settling down at Auburn University.  Here I have been able to focus on survey, inventory, and research projects on a range of herps, including the Indigo Snake, Red Hills Salamander, Black Warrior Waterdog, Flattened Musk Turtle, Gopher Tortoise, Alligator Snapping Turtle, Map Turtles, and Alabama Red-bellied Turtle.

5 May 2012 and snakes are hitting the ground, but not literally.  Tongue flick, tongue flick, tentative forward crawl, tongue flick, slight turn of the neck, tongue flick, tongue flick, twist of the body, rapid slither down a gopher tortoise burrow and one more Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) has been set free on this warm spring morning.  I, and a small crowd of other indigo enthusiasts, stand nearby to see yet another snake entering the wilds of south Alabama.

      The day began with a gathering in Andalusia, Alabama for the third release of Eastern Indigo Snakes onto Conecuh National Forest.  A short caravan of vehicles that I was heading proceeded south through the early morning fog along US 29 then AL 137 before making the turn leading to the focal point for the morning’s activities.  Represented on this day were indigo snake researchers from Auburn University, The Orianne Society, US Forest Service, the Auburn University student chapter of the Society of Conservation Biology, Georgia Public Broadcasting, The Jones Ecological Center, and other interested individuals.   

     As with the two previous releases in 2010 and 2011, most of these snakes have been implanted with a radio transmitter which allows Jimmy and Sierra Stiles to follow their movements.  Jimmy and Sierra have each taken on studies of these Eastern Indigo Snakes for their research theses.  Without the technological aid of the transmission of a unique radio signal we would not be able to learn of the movements and survival of the snakes.  An adult Eastern Indigo Snake in hand is a large, impressive, deep blue-black, conspicuous serpent, but in the wild the snakes blend with their environment.  The sheen and coloration of their black bodies intermingle with the mottled shade found under vegetation, thus cryptically concealing even the largest of snakes.

      The overall goal of our conservation effort is to establish a population of the Eastern Indigo Snake in south Alabama, and Conecuh National Forest is the chosen location. In concert with the conservation effort is research to test release methodologies, compare movements, home range size, and habitat usage to wild populations in Georgia, determine how many snakes live from year to year, and identify causes of death.

      One year later and my morning begins with the loading of 20 boxes, each containing a snake, into the back of my Land Cruiser, filling the rear seat area floor to ceiling.  The snakes were guests of mine in the motel where I had stayed the previous night, and I was very careful to make a thorough head count before leaving

Today, 9 May 2013, we have no crowds to commemorate the freedom of additional Eastern Indigo Snakes.  Today I am one of only nine on hand to experience the event of the release. Folks from Auburn University, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the U.S. Forest Service are all that are present.  But with fewer snakes this year small is good. 

     Standing over a gopher tortoise burrow, GPS in one hand and notebook in the other, Jimmy Stiles records the release location of the eastern indigo snake his wife Sierra is setting free.  Today marks the fourth release event for the Eastern Indigo Snake reintroduction project that Auburn University is leading at Conecuh National Forest.  By the end of the morning an additional 20 snakes will be roaming the forest.  Along with those released the three previous years this will bring the total number of juvenile indigo snakes to 98.

     After four releases and three years of radio-tracking snakes what have we learned?  One is that snakes cannot be contained.  The release techniques we tested included keeping a snake temporarily within pens (soft-release) versus just letting it go into the wild (hard-release).  The main question to be answered was whether soft-released snakes had a better chance of surviving. The answer is probably but I have to be vague because most snakes discovered points of exit earlier than planned.  And quite surprisingly, some snakes returned to pens after making an early exit.

     Our snakes were reared in captivity for nearly two years, from the egg to about a meter in length, or the minimum size to comfortably hold a transmitter. While many were held in large outdoor tubs for a couple of weeks prior to release we actually did not know if the snakes would transition successfully from lab to wild.  The short answer is they did and very well.  As soon as being released snakes began to act like wild snakes.  Some exhibited defensive behavior, all took immediate refuge in burrows, stump holes, or under cover, and one was found consuming a Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) within 18 hours after its release.

     Overall the project is being met with cautious optimism.  Signs of success are evident.  Snakes are surviving from year to year, juveniles are maturing, and reproduction is underway although hatching in the wild is yet to be documented.   But, unfortunately the occasional death of snakes occurs within this experimental population, and the fate of these snakes is usually to be crushed under the tires of a vehicle or captured within the talons of a raptor or jaws of a mammalian predator.

     Success may also be measured in the formation of the partnership that has developed around the Eastern Indigo Snake.  Federal and state agencies, conservation organizations, and an academic animal to Alabama.  Too often - due to our human limitations in understanding the natural world - we think we have the answers.  In this instance we have some of the answers and as each year passes we have more. Many of the answers have come from something unexpected because the snakes are living and behaving as the wild snakes that they should become.

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