indigo snake

Meet the Lords of the Forest and Those Working to Save Them from Extinction

The eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) is a large, black, non-venomous species of snake that lives in the southeastern United States. The indigo snake is endemic to this region, which means it can be found nowhere else in the world. It’s a stunningly beautiful animal, but like many other wildlife species, it is endangered. Fortunately, there are some passionate and dedicated people who are actively working to save the eastern indigo snakes!

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The Eastern Indigo: An Endangered, Endemic, American Icon

This genus of this species, Drymarchon, roughly translates to “Lord of the Forest” and the indigo snake is clearly the ruler of it’s kingdom! Reaching lengths of almost 9 feet (2.7 meters), it is the longest native snake species in the United States. Their domain? Longleaf pine forest, which is critically important habitat for over 900 species of flora and fauna. Indigos are top predators in their ecosystem and they play a vital role in maintaining balance in the food web. While most snakes have a relatively weak bite force, eastern indigo snakes have a strong bite, and use muscular jaws to physically overpower their prey. They even regularly consume venomous snakes, such as copperheads and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. For landowners with venomous snake species on their property, the indigo snake is truly your friend!

If one is lucky enough to see an indigo in the wild, it is truly an unforgettable experience. However, it is getting more difficult to witness the Lord of the Forest in its natural habitat. This iconic snake species faces many threats, but the main contributors are loss of habitat, illegal collection for the pet trade, and they are even sometimes accidentally gassed in their burrows by rattlesnake poachers.

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Due to their beauty and calm demeanor, indigo snakes were once collected from the wild in great quantities for the pet trade. This moment, captured in the 1940s, the famous burlesque dancer, Miss Zorita, gives her pet indigo snake a bath.

As a result of the threats faced by the eastern indigo snake, the species was listed as a Threatened Species in 1978 on the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Enforcement responsibilities are entrusted to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Yet, their population is still in decline. The good news? There are many dedicated groups working together to save the eastern indigo snake.

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The Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation in Eustis, Florida

Leading The Way Towards Successful Eastern Indigo Snake Conservation

Recently Save The Snakes Executive Director Michael Starkey received the fantastic opportunity to tour the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC) in order to learn more about this spectacular snake species and to understand what is being done to save it from extinction. Located in Eustis, Florida, the OCIC is the collaborative effort between the nonprofit organization the Orianne Society and The Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. The two organizations have partnered together to conserve eastern indigo snakes, with the Central Florida Zoo taking over operations of the OCIC in 2014.

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The OCIC is a spectacular facility and snake enthusiasts should consider visiting.

The OCIC property is located on 25 acres in the eastern indigo snake’s native range. The OCIC focuses on land conservation, researching and monitoring species occurrence, and mitigating factors that cause reptiles and amphibians to decline, and they captive breed eastern indigo snakes for reintroduction into areas in which they no longer occur. As education is a key component to any snake conservation effort, the OCIC regularly gives presentations about their work to save the eastern indigo snake.

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The educational programs at the OCIC are designed to promote public education and to advance tolerance of snakes in our natural environments.

One of the buildings at the OCIC, the Herpetarium, is a 2,500 square foot indoor facility with two separate animal sections. One section is designed for the growing and breeding of the indigo snake hatchlings. As each new hatchling is incredibly important for the survival of its species, each snake is individually assessed to determine any designated future breeding plans. The OCIC maintains the eastern indigo Studbook and produces the Population Management Plan for the Eastern Indigo Snake Species Survival Plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

OCIC’s outdoor enclosures are the highlight and trademark of the indigo program. These large enclosures allow the snakes to be exposed to the natural environment they would encounter in the wild.

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Large, spacious enclosures prepare indigo snakes for their future release into the wild.

The natural daily and seasonal changes are essential to the long-term reproductive cycles of the indigo snake and maintain their normal physiological rhythms.

Behavioral enrichment stimulates exercise and is beneficial to both the physical and psychological well being of the snake and prepares them for release into the wild.

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To date, over 140 eastern indigo snakes have been released into the wild thanks to the efforts by the OCIC and collaborators, with more releases planned for the future. While scientists, policy makers, organizations and government agencies work together to solve the threats that eastern indigo snakes face throughout their range, the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation is here to ensure that a captive population exists to replenish wild populations. Through captive breading, reintroduction and education, they are truly making a difference for wild indigo snake populations. It was a fantastic opportunity to visit the OCIC and we look forward to hearing more eastern indigo snake conservation success stories from this incredible facility.

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Save The Snakes Executive Director Michael Starkey with Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation Deputy Director Michelle Hoffman and one of the amazing eastern indigo snakes

Do You Want To Help Save The Eastern Indigo Snakes?

You can! The OCIC seeks dedicated, passionate and hard-working interns and volunteers to support their conservation programs. Interested? Visit the OCIC website and Facebook page for more information!

Learn more about the Lord of the Forest’s kingdom:
Secrets of the Longleaf Pine

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