SCCF’s Indigo Snake Project Provides Education to Local Institutions

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Adult Eastern Indigo Snake

SCCF is in its third year of captive breeding its legally acquired eastern indigo snakes in the SCCF Nature Center, as a subsidiary of the SCCF Pine Island Sound Eastern Indigo Snake Project (SPISEIP). The eastern indigo snake is a large (5 – 7 ft), docile, black snake that is now extirpated in many parts of Florida, including Sanibel and Captiva. It has been a state protected species since 1971 and a federally threatened species since 1978. This means that it has been illegal to harass, touch, catch, keep, and kill, etc. wild eastern indigo snakes in Florida since 1971. Legally held (captive) eastern indigo snakes are either the result of confiscations by law enforcement (that are then given, and permitted, to someone because they can’t be released) or from captive-bred stock whose origins predates the state and federal listing of the species. Legal captive eastern indigo snakes cannot be sold in Florida due to them being a Florida listed species.

The SPISEIP began in 2012 when SCCF partnered with the Orianne Society; a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the eastern indigo snake. Chris Lechowicz was placed on their federal permit to conduct a mark-recapture study in Pine Island Sound to assess the population status, collect genetic samples, and come up with recommendations to sustain these populations. This species was once common on many barrier islands in Florida, but have been severely reduced to just a few islands in Pine Island Sound in recent years. Some populations still exist in the Florida peninsula, but many populations have been decimated due to development and especially the construction of new roads through large tracts of land. Eastern indigo snakes have a very large home range and road mortality is one of their main threats due frequently crossing roads.

Juvenile Eastern Indigo snake

SCCF’s original pair of captive indigo snakes (that were given to us in 2011 and 2012) are not from Pine Island Sound, but from a long line of captive bred animals that were produced in Lakeland, FL by the only permitted breeder in Florida at the time. A common question we are asked is: “Why do you breed indigo snakes at SCCF?”  The best answer for that is “conservation through education”. Nature centers, conservation organizations, schools and numerous individuals would like them for live exhibits or for educational lectures on snake conservation. Educational snakes are a very powerful tool to help to change negative feelings about snakes (and their role in the environment).   An adult indigo snake certainly gets everyone’s attention at a lecture and the message about their plight and that of other snakes, are better appreciated. Plus, the opportunity to legally touch or hold one can be a transformative experience for those who have a mild or unsure fear of snakes.

Indigo PIT Tag

A PIT tag, like a microchip for a cat or dog, is inserted for identification

Legal captive indigo snakes are very hard to acquire, especially in states that are in their natural range (like Florida).  By breeding these snakes, we are able to give other educators and organizations, that conduct similar conservation work, legal eastern indigo snakes that will be used to help change the minds of many people with negative feelings about snakes and teach people about this magnificent, unique, and troubled species in Florida.

Many people ask if the snakes we have produced can be released on Sanibel since they are now absent from the island. The answer to that is no.  Pine Island Sound snakes are genetically distinct from other populations in Florida and snake biologists, as well as state and federal agencies would not allow the mix of gene pools.  Plus, the problem that led to their extirpation has not been addressed, which is a busy road (Sanibel-Captiva Road) bisecting two major land areas (SCCF and Refuge Lands). To have any hope of repatriating indigo snakes back on the west end of Sanibel, Sanibel-Captiva Road would need to be either elevated or a barrier constructed on both sides with frequent eco-passes underneath to allow wildlife to go back and forth. Also, the stock for the repatriation would need to be from Pine Island Sound snakes.

Indigos new home at CROW

A new home at CROW

This spring, some of our captive-bred eastern indigo snakes that hatched at the SCCF Nature Center on 7/23/15 will be given to Audubon Corkscrew Sanctuary (West Naples), C.R.O.W (Sanibel), FGCU (Fort Myers), and Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute (North Carolina) for educational and outreach exhibits. The hatchlings were held until April to assure that they were readily feeding and large enough to be micro-chipped.  If you have any questions about this effort, please call 239-472-3984 or email Chris Lechowicz at clechowicz@sccf.org.  If you see a wild eastern indigo snake on any of the islands in Pine Island Sound, please take a picture and send it to indigo@sccf.org or call 239-472-3984.