After Decades Of Restoration Indigo Snakes Return To Florida Preserve

Jul 21, 2017

Piccolomini holding Butters making her way out to the release site.
Credit Nick Evans

The eastern indigo snake is back in North Florida, at least that’s what a group of scientists is hoping.  Reintroducing the species caps off three decades off environmental restoration efforts.

The Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve sits just outside of Bristol, Florida.  And this week The Nature Conservancy’s David Printiss ambled along a small dirt road passing out oddly shaped pillowcases tied off at one end. 

“You’ve got a baby,” Auburn grad student Sara Piccolomini teases.

“I do, I do,” Printiss says, laughing.

That baby is actually a three year old eastern indigo snake named Butters.  

Piccolomini chose names because every day for the next few months she’ll be trudging out into the preserve to track Butters and 11 other snakes.

“All of my animals have these little transmitter devices that have been surgically implanted,” Piccolomini explains, “and they give off a specific frequency number.”

Piccolomini setting up her antenna.
Credit Nick Evans

“So I plug this frequency number in,” she says, holding up a grey handheld radio receiver—think those boxy early cell phones.  In the other hand she’s holding a collapsible aluminum antenna. 

“So basically I follow this noise in the direction that I’m getting the strongest signal from,” Piccolomini goes on. 

“See how it’s really loud here—not so loud when I’m pointing it this way.” She says sweeping the antenna in a broad arc. 

“So I would start walking in this direction and as I get closer the signal will get louder, and it’ll be an indication for me to pinpoint her location.  And I do this with all the snakes—everyday.”

Eastern indigo snake in a gopher tortoise burrow just after release.
Credit The Nature Conservancy

The eastern indigo is the longest snake native to the United States—growing up to nine feet long.  It’s what’s known as an apex predator, sitting at the top of its habitat’s food chain.  It eats widely, including other snakes—even poisonous ones—because the eastern indigo is resistant to venom. 

But it’s federally threatened after years of habitat loss.  Printiss explains that’s what happened here at the preserve.

“So we purchased the property, started purchasing in 1982” Printiss says. 

“Really rough shape—it was a failed slash pine plantation,” he says.  “It was just really thick hardwoods.  No long leaf pine at all, and the restoration in full force started in the late ‘80s.”

Over the last thirty-odd years The Nature Conservancy has worked in concert with state and federal agencies to restore that long leaf pine forest habitat.  Thomas Eason heads up the office of species and habitat restoration at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.  He explains indigo snakes are kind of the last link in a chain of projects.

“It may not look like much to folks who aren’t used to it but the transformation that’s happening here, in this habitat—this open habitat with the wire grass and the other plant communities coming in, is really good,” Eason says.  “And so it took getting this habitat to this stage, and then getting gopher tortoises out here to provide the burrows for indigos and other animals that now allows us to put the indigos on the landscape.”

At a large gopher tortoise burrow Piccolomini pulls Butters from his pillowcase.  And after a pausing for photos, she takes him over to the burrow.

“I have faith in you,” Piccolomini says to the snake, “We’re not going to die.  We’re not going to run away.  We’re going to do great things.”

She lowers him to the burrow’s mouth, and Butters slithers right in.

“Be free Butters,” she says, “be free.”

The project will roll out over the next ten years.  Starting in 2018, Piccolomini and other researchers will up their release figures to 30 snakes annually.  It’s based on a similar effort in Alabama’s Conecuh National Forest.  Auburn Zoologist Jim Godwin says those releases began seven years ago, but it’s still a little soon to

“You know if you stop and think about it, the indigo snake in south Alabama disappeared about 60 years ago,” he says, “and so the niche that it filled then became open or vacant.”

“And so the prey of the snakes responded in some way which we don’t know what it is because no one had these thoughts 60, 70, 80 years ago to conceive of this kind of a study,” Godwin says.

Back in the preserve Piccolomini is optimistic. Just days after the release she stumbled on one of her snakes, Sally, settling right in to her new habitat. 

She was slowly eating a poisonous copperhead snake.