• Carrie Gardner

Lord of the Forest, Long May You Ever Dwell

Photo courtesy of Sara Piccolomini at Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, Bristol Florida. This little guy was one of 12 that were released for the first time in Florida in 2014.

These guys are my favorite snakes. Eastern indigo snakes are one of the most beautiful snakes in North America. Drymarchon couperi are the largest non-venomous snakes in North America. There is a recorded 9.2-foot snake, but most males are around 7 ½ feet and can weigh anywhere from 7 - 9 pounds. Females are smaller, usually around 6 ½ feet and 4-6 pounds. Their Latin name translates into the “Lord of the Forest.” Which is appropriate. They are endangered both in Florida and federally, but there are programs and reintroductions going on.

Reintroduction into the wild

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by LA Dawson

The Orianne Society, now partnered with Central Florida Zoo, is on the frontline of repopulating them. They breed these gentle giants and raise the babies for two years, so they can release them when they are big enough to survive. The last months are in outdoor cages so they are exposed to the wild. In concert with many partners, they released 12 snakes into Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, a tract of land that was restored by The Nature Conservancy for over 35 years.

National Forest in Florida Wildlife; Creative Commons

Up in Alabama, 130 indigos have been released in Conecuh National Forest since 2010. The first sighting of one after that first release was enjoying a nice copperhead snake meal. All the snakes released in both Florida and in Alabama are fitted with telemetry so they can be located and monitored. They have been seen entering gopher tortoise burrows instinctively, finding food and mating. Not bad for being raised in a rubber tub, huh? Unfortunately, only half will survive. The ultimate goal is to find a snake that doesn’t have telemetry, one that was hatched in the wild. Dozens of people attend the releases, many are families which is unusual considering that this is a snake. It’s a great way to be raising awareness while getting rid of that fear thing.

Habitats and ranges

Creative Commons,

The reason why they are so threatened is that they like certain habitats at certain times. They are found in Flatwoods, hammocks, dry glades, stream bottoms, cane fields, riparian thickets and high ground with sandy soil and their habitat also happens to be the prime real estate for humans - or we have polluted their habitat to such a point that they can’t survive.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons

Indigo Snake leaving a gopher tortoise burrow

If you read the blog on the gopher tortoise, you know that the tortoises are a keystone species, that hundreds of species depend on to survive. One of those species is the indigo snake. It is critical to their survival to be able to duck into a burrow if it is in danger or looking to get out of the sun. Numerous burrows may be utilized throughout their range when they’re looking for a meal or the lady snake putting off that wonderful scent. Or for hibernation, though in this locale, it is only a few weeks, if that.

Photo courtesy Matt Marriott for ZooTampa Lowry Park

You’ve probably surmised that they live in Florida and Alabama - though until the relocations started in 2010, it was believed they were extinct there. They are also found in southern South Carolina and Mississippi. Besides Florida, they are also endangered in Georgia.

Let’s talk indigos for a bit

Female indigo snake

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Creative Commons

Indigos are incredibly beautiful snakes. They are a glossy black (I read somewhere where they said they look like a newly shined barrister) with an orangey, reddish, brownish tint on their cheeks and chin...though some don’t have any tint at all. In the sun, if it hits their body just right, they iridesce in blues, greens, purples, and pinks.

Photo courtesy of Matt Marriott, ZooTampa Lowry Park

Males have larger ranges than females shrinks or grows by season but have been known to travel great distances when they catch a whiff of the pheromone females produce when they are ovulating. It is a November through April romance. Okay, I’ll be blunt. It’s a November through April of multiple one-night stands...and fighting for women. It’s a debauchery. If there is more than one male after the same female, they will duke it out. If that leaves you wondering, imagine the head being the duke. They raise themselves up and try to defeat the other by pinning his head to the ground. The winner gets the girl, the other slinks off muttering foul words with a forked tongue. The pheromones produced by females inhibits the males appetite. This is important because it would really suck to have some handsome beau show up and says “I wanna eat you up!!” and then literally, eats you. Sometime in May or June, the female looks for vacated burrows or other sheltered areas and lays anywhere from 4-12 eggs. And then she leaves them to fend for themselves.

Photo courtesy of Vincenzo Salvatico - A first look at the brand new world

But they’re cool - they are born as miniature copies of their mom and dad. And they do have an internal yolk sac that nourishes them for about a month. They grow rapidly and reach their adult size in about two or three years. Once they get to adult length, they really don’t have any predators, except humans. They can live anywhere from 12-21 years in the wild.

Photo courtesy of Matt Marriott, ZooTampa Lowry Park

They are active during the day (diurnal), and like their fellow Floridians, enjoy spending their summer alongside the water in the wetlands. During the winter months, they bond with their gopher tortoise landlords and enjoy days warming up in the sun without heat and humidity.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Creative Commons

"Do I need any sunscreen?"

Sometime during the day, they have to get some vittles. What do they eat? It’s more like what don’t they eat? They have voracious appetites and will eat mammals, amphibians, lizards, frogs, young turtles and snakes (even the venomous ones - they are immune to the venom), birds, eggs, and I’m sure so much more. Unlike most snakes, who kill by constriction (or venom), they will either press their prey to the ground until it becomes so tired that it can no longer escape, or they do a “wham, bam, slam - oh damn, my brain is spam” method. Hitting prey on nearby objects. Cause of death is usually suffocation from being swallowed. Though I have not read of anything documented that says indigo snakes do this, I would imagine that like most carnivores, they aren’t picky about what they eat and if they should come across an animal that died by other means, they take advantage of the little gift left for them.

If you happen to cross one’s path…

From Reptiles Magazine "Can I finish swallowing first?" Indigo finishing up a rattlesnake.

If you should happen upon one down here in the south, stop and whip out that phone to get pictures! It is a rarity, sadly, these days. You can’t capture or harass them, but you can take pictures. They are known for their docility and intelligence and if they don’t feel threatened they’ll probably just stare at you. If you’re bothering them they’ll just leave, probably at a slightly quicker pace. And if they feel boxed in, there will be threat displays like hissing, rattling their tail and flatten their heads, but they rarely bite people (that doesn’t mean they won’t, so if they are doing this, just back away and leave them alone for a few minutes. Most likely they will leave and you can go on your way.) And remember what I said up there...federally declared endangered, and declared endangered in Florida and Georgia. They are protected upon protected.

Photo courtesy of Matt Marriott, ZooTampa Lowry Park

Indigos in captivity

Kevin Enge of GTM Research Reserve, Creative Commons

There are breeders in the United States that sell indigo snakes. But, because of their federally endangered status, there are some states like Florida that prohibit them from being kept as pets. States, where they are allowed, may require a permit (cost depends on state). If someone purchases an eastern indigo from a different state, then they must apply for a Federal Interstate Commerce Permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife ($100.00) on top of the other permit. As far as the snake goes, I’ve read between $1,000.00 - $1,200.00. There are even breeders across the pond in Europe too. I enjoyed reading a forum or two in Italy, I believe.

U.S. Army; Creative Commons

Shining like a new penny

They may be large, but they are also docile as adults - and intelligent. Younger ones are a bit more skittish, which is typical of baby animals everywhere, I think. Besides that, a large enclosure is needed in floor space and height space. They are expensive to keep because of their appetites. And from what I understand, when they poop, flies drop dead miles around, mosquitoes hold on as long as they can, dung beetles are heading to Africa to find elephants, cockroaches look confused, and you custom order biohazard suits with independent oxygen supplies for the family. Please don’t forget Fluffy and Fido. Even the indigo has his head pressed against the glass in desperation. Suit up, go into the room where the cage is, shut the door to the room and open the cage. That black flash you keep on seeing is your indigo escaping the very worst smell that even he knows. Give the poor guy a bath. Put him on a towel in a large Tupperware box and go give the cage a bath. Because of that appetite, this will happen every three to four days. Personally, I think I want them in the wild, procreating, and able to escape their poop faster than the speed of light.

This photo has been viral for years. I couldn't even find credits for who took it.

The incredible sight of the largest nonvenomous snake in the country eating the

largest venomous snake.

These big snakes are not only beautiful but full of personality and intelligence. They are also vital to the ecosystem. I loved these guys before I moved down to Florida in 2002, and though I haven’t seen them in the wild, I love the idea that somewhere around me there may be one and I look forward and am honored to share Florida with them from here on out.

I apologize (maybe) for all the photographs. The list was a lot longer. They are just too beautiful.

Photo courtesy of Vincenzo Salvatico This is a WOW photograph!

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