By Katie Cline, Editor-in-Chief
When Jacob Garmon and Griffin McDaniels set off for a four-day excursion into the Conecuh National Forest in May, they hoped for a relaxing trip filled with sightings of their favorite reptiles and amphibians. What they didn’t expect was to find one of the most elusive and threatened snakes in the country: the eastern indigo snake.
Garmon, a senior biology major with a concentration in ecology, and McDaniels, a second-year biology graduate student, were driving through the forest when McDaniels spotted the indigo snake just off the road.
“He hopped out of the truck before it had even stopped moving,” Garmon laughed, “and I couldn’t get the keys out, so I just threw the truck in park and left it running.”
Once ranging from Mississippi to the Carolinas, the indigo snake now only has native populations in Florida and southern Georgia and is a federally protected species. It vanished from Alabama in the 1950s and remained absent until reintroduction efforts began in 2010. Since then, Auburn University has released 107 microchipped snakes into the Conecuh forest.
“Of the 107 that Auburn’s been releasing on Conecuh, only three have been seen in the last three years,” McDaniels said. “What’s interesting is that the one that we found was about five, five and half foot long, which is smaller than all the 107 that they released.”
It is not yet known if the snake Garmon and McDaniels found was one of the three confirmed recaptures. If not, it is possible that this snake is a native-born individual, one that hatched in Alabama in the seven years since reintroduction efforts started.
The indigo snake is the longest snake native to North America, growing up to 8.5 or 9 feet in length. Despite their intimidating size, they pose virtually no threat to humans; indigo snakes are non-venomous and ophiophagus, meaning that they eat other snakes, including venomous ones like rattlesnakes and copperheads.
These characteristics were also factors in the indigo snake’s decline. Garmon and McDaniels identified three key issues that have contributed to the snake’s place on the federally threatened species list: fear, the pet trade and habitat loss and accidental persecution.
Many people, afraid of the snakes because of their size and color, would kill them without knowing or realizing that they are harmless. The docile nature of indigo snakes made others believe they would make good pets, and this led to what McDaniels calls “pet trade poaching.”
Finally, the indigo snake suffers from habitat loss—but not directly. During months of extreme heat and cold, indigo snakes seek shelter in gopher tortoise burrows, and this sandy soil habitat is rapidly being destroyed. Without these burrows, indigo snakes can die from exposure.
But indigo snakes aren’t always safe inside gopher tortoise burrows, either. Rattlesnakes also seek shelter in these burrows, and one method of getting rid of rattlesnakes is to “gas” them out by throwing gasoline down the burrows, often resulting in indigo snake casualties.
Today, there are federal laws in place to protect these snakes. Under the Federal Endangered Species Act, a person found to have killed an indigo snake can face a fine of up to $50,000 and up to a year in prison.
Special permits are required to own or handle these snakes as well, either in captivity or in the wild, so Garmon and McDaniels were not legally allowed to touch the snake they found, even to hold it until a park ranger or specialist could come to the scene.
Garmon and McDaniels’ sighting has garnered attention across the state. Dr. David Steen, an assistant research professor at Auburn University, tweeted one of Garmon’s photos of the snake, saying, “Thanks to Griffin McDaniels and Jacob Garmon for observing the animal without disturbing it and reporting the sighting.” And Mark Bailey of Conservation Southeast, Inc. reported the sighting at an indigo snake conference at Troy University the day after the snake was found.
For state biologists and snake enthusiasts, this sighting is important.
“It spread like wildfire,” Garmon said. “It’s a big deal. It’s the first sighting in about a year and a half.”
“People are more excited about the possibility of a native-born snake than anything else,” McDaniels added. A native-born snake would be proof that reintroduction efforts are succeeding, and it would indicate that the indigo snake population is on the rise.”
Garmon and McDaniels saw about 17 different species of reptiles and amphibians on their trip, including gopher frog tadpoles and southern cricket frogs. Both are exciting finds, because gopher frogs are endangered in the state of Alabama, and southern cricket frogs have orange, yellow and green color variations in not seen in the brown coloring of the northern cricket frogs found in Jacksonville.
Garmon and McDaniels want people to appreciate the wildlife in their state parks and own backyards but remind budding naturalists that nature is the animals’ territory.
“Be sure to read up on the species of local fauna [before you travel] so you know what to expect and what you might encounter,” Garmon advised.
And when it comes to snakes, the consensus is that it’s best to leave them to the professionals.
“If you aren’t familiar with snakes and can’t identify them, leave them alone,” McDaniels said.
If you think you’ve spotted an indigo snake in the Conecuh National Forest, do not touch it, but keep it in sight and contact Tim Mersmann, Conecuh National Forest District Ranger, at (334)-222-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org as soon as possible.
You can find more of McDaniels’ wildlife photography here.