Indigo Snakes - Titusville, Florida
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Eastern Indigo Snakes
Indigo Snake - coiled


By Rebecca B. Smith
Wildlife Ecologist, Dynamac Corporation, Kennedy Space Center, FL
March 8, 2002


Introduction

Mo with a beautiful Eastern Indigo Snake The eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon corais couperi) has the distinction of being the largest snake native to North America. Eastern indigos typically range from 5 to 7 feet long, but can reach lengths greater than 8 feet. Indigos are robust and shiny black, with smooth conspicuous scales. The lower face and chin may be black, light grey, or red, and the coloration can extend down the body past the throat. Indigo snakes are non-venomous and generally docile; they rarely become aggressive even when threatened. They are long-lived, and there are reports of captive individuals surviving for 25 years, but life spans in the wild are likely much shorter.

Indigo Snake - in the Enchanted Forest Eastern indigos were once common from the southern tip of South Carolina west to southeastern Mississippi and throughout Florida, including the Keys. Their current range is restricted to southern Georgia and peninsular Florida, with a few isolated populations in the Florida panhandle and north Key Largo.

Eastern indigo snakes were federally protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1978, and they are also protected as threatened by the State of Florida. It is illegal to harass, harm, capture, keep, or kill an eastern indigo snake without specific state and/or federal permits.

Life History

Eastern indigos use a wide variety of habitats ranging from very wet to very dry. They tend to stay in a specific area known as a home range, but this area is not static and can change over time, probably in response to habitat conditions and prey availability. Because indigo snakes are sizeable predators that actively hunt for their food, they need large home ranges. Males have been shown to use between 50 and 800 acres, while females occupy up to 370 acres. During the winter, home range sizes are smaller, particularly in the cooler, northern portions of their geographic range.

Indigo Snake - from Archie Carr NWF Indigo snakes (like all snakes) are reptiles, and therefore, "coldblooded". They are at the mercy of temperature extremes in the environment and must protect themselves from excessive heat and cold. Although indigos are very general in the types of habitats they will use, their home ranges must include suitable den sites. In places where indigos share their habitat with gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus), gopher tortoise burrows are often used for shelter. The snake may share the burrow with a tortoise, but most often indigos will occupy an old burrow that the tortoise has deserted. Other den sites include root mounds at the base of trees and shrubs, piles of sticks and/or dirt, and man-made debris piles. Indigos use dens not only as protection from seasonal temperature extremes, but also from daily temperature fluctuations, fire, inclement weather, and predators just before and during shedding, when they are particularly vulnerable.

tracking an Eastern Indigo Snake Eastern indigos actively search for prey during the day and enter dens at night. They consume a wide variety of foods; virtually any small vertebrate that is available will be grabbed and swallowed alive. Fish, frogs and toads, other snakes (including venomous snakes and other indigos), turtles, birds, and small mammals are all documented prey of the indigo snake.

Because adult eastern indigo snakes are so large, they have few natural predators. However, red-tailed hawks, alligators, and larger indigos have been documented to prey on indigo snakes. Domestic cats and dogs also have been known to kill indigo snakes. Although not confirmed, other large raptors, bears, pigs, bobcats, and coyotes may prey on indigo snakes. Hatchling and juvenile indigos, as well as eggs, could easily be eaten by many animals, and mortality is probably much higher for these life stages than for adults.

Very little is known about eastern indigo snake reproduction in the wild. What information that is available comes from captive populations, and these data represent the upper limits of what snakes in the wild might be able to do. Mating occurs from winter to early spring, and males and females are often found together during these months. Captive indigos can reproduce every year, but the frequency of reproduction for wild snakes is uncertain and only recently has come under scientific investigation. The eggs are deposited in spring, but the location and substrate for nest sites are unknown. Between five and ten large, slightly oval eggs with a very rough texture are laid. The young are 16 to 24 inches long at hatching. They may have the same coloration as an adult, or may be speckled with blue or white flecks which fade within a few months. The number of eggs that typically hatch, and what the young snakes do or how well they survive in the wild are just a few of the many questions we cannot answer at this time.

Threats and Problems

Road kill - a beautiful Eastern Indigo Snake Although eastern indigo snakes were federally protected in 1978, there is general agreement among scientists and laypeople that their populations have continued to decline. There are many threats that contribute to the loss of individuals and small populations. Before being protected, eastern indigo snakes were commonly kept as pets, which effectively removed these individuals from the breeding population. The practice of "gassing" gopher tortoise burrows (pouring gasoline into burrows to drive out the occupants) as part of rattlesnake roundups undoubtedly took a toll on indigos, as well as many other species of wildlife. This practice is now illegal in Florida and Georgia, but the laws are difficult to enforce.

Another source of mortality to indigos and many other species of snakes is intentional killing by humans. Although it is illegal, many indigos are harassed or killed simply because they are snakes and some people are afraid of all snakes. Harming an indigo snake is a federal offense which violates the Endangered Species Act and conviction is punishable by substantial fines and/or incarceration. Education of the general public regarding the indigo's protected status and the role of snakes as an important component of our ecosystem would help stop the unnecessary loss.

To date, the Endangered Species Act has been ineffective in protecting eastern indigos against the greatest threat: the loss, fragmentation, and degradation of their habitats. The detrimental effects of outright habitat destruction are obvious. However, at present, there are no reliable survey methods to detect the presence of indigo snakes on a site. The difficulty in confirming their presence hinders effective legal protection and mitigation for loss of individuals, populations, and habitat.

Habitat fragmentation is as serious a threat to the eastern indigo snake as outright habitat destruction. Because indigos move over large areas, they are often forced to cross roads while searching for food and mates. In areas where research has been conducted, vehicular mortality has been documented as the single greatest cause of mortality for indigo snakes. Habitat fragmentation also increases the chances that an indigo will come into contact with a person, a situation where the snake often loses.

Habitat degradation is an indirect, yet serious, threat to indigo populations. Habitat may degrade over time for a number of reasons, including lack of fire, or changes in water levels or water quality. These and other extrinsic factors can influence the abundance of prey, the availability of suitable den sites, or access to mates. Setting aside habitat for indigos and other wildlife species is meaningless without a commitment to proper land management.

What Can You Do?

A smaller Eastern Indigo Snake You can help protect and conserve eastern indigo snake populations in a number of ways. First, educate yourself and others about indigos and the vital role that all snakes play in the environment. Most snakes, including the indigo are completely harmless. There are many people that would not harm snakes if they realized what important and interesting creatures they really are. Irrational fear and prejudice can often be cured by one pleasant experience.

Be an informed voter. Support officials at all levels of government that recognize the value of our natural resources. The most important factor in saving the eastern indigo snake from extinction is the conservation and proper management of large tracts of habitat. It will not matter how many individual snakes we save if there is no habitat for healthy, reproducing populations to thrive. Strong laws to protect wildlife and habitats (and enforcement of those laws) are not necessarily incompatible with responsible development and a robust economy. It is possible, and preferable, to have both.


Try doing a search for Indigo Snakes on any Search Engine. You'll find lots of interesting sites.

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