Snake regains habitat with help of Memphis Zoo
Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010 9:44 am
MEMPHIS (AP) — The baby snake that emerged from its shell at the Memphis Zoo recently represents the future of the Louisiana pine snake.
It’s at the center of a program to reintroduce the species to its native territory.
The program is the first attempt to release captive-bred Louisiana pine snakes into the wild, according to Steve Reichling, curator of reptiles, aquarium and small animals at the Memphis Zoo.
It is also a program that puts into action the commitment zoos have to species preservation.
“Zoos often talk about why we are breeding endangered species,” Reichling said. “And we always say one day we can release them out into the wild.
“It hardly ever happens. This is one of the few times where we’re actually doing that.”
The snake, a non-venomous constrictor, spends 90 percent of its time underground and wasn’t discovered until the mid-1920s. It has suffered from destruction of the long-leafed pine forest.
Reichling began collecting pine snakes from the wild in 1982 and started the Association of Zoos & Aquariums species survival plan for the snakes in 2000.
About two dozen zoos are involved in the survival plan. A handful are breeding to maintain the captive population. The remainder are breeding for release in the Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana, with 11 snakes turned loose this summer (six from Memphis) and 11 to go next spring.
That forest has been revived and now is an ideal location for a release.
“We’re picking the best portions of the forest to release them into and if it goes wandering 5 miles off, they’re going to end up in habitat we really don’t want them to be in,” Reichling said.
A few of the snakes will leave with tiny radio telemeters taped to their tails, making them trackable for about 70 days.
Afterward, a border collie trained to find pine snakes, will sniff them out for study.
The snakes hatch from eggs about 6 inches long and are between 18 and 22 inches at birth. In captivity they can grow up to 6 feet long, although wild snakes only get to about 41/2 feet.
“It’s a rough snake, roughly scaled, bad tempered. It hisses,” Reichling said.
They’re scrawny and because the pocket gophers they feed on don’t go quietly, even under the best conditions, the snakes are scarred and beaten up.
They fit well into the rough habitat of central Louisiana.
The collection of zoos, state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and private timber companies involved in the release program is impressive, said lead biologist Debbie Fuller with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Lafayette, La.
“I wish we had this for all species,” Fuller said. “To me, it’s amazing that we have so many people working so proactively together to bring the species back.”
The Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin, Texas, was the first to breed the pine snakes. That zoo’s role in the program is to breed to maintain the captive population, said director Gordon Henley.
The snakes had been in Texas, but it’s been two years since the last one was found there, Henley said. There’s discussion of releasing the snakes in Texas as well.
Reichling, who has spent decades studying the Louisiana pine snake, sees no need to justify the work being done on its behalf.
In this newly “green” environment, anyone who cares about the state of the Earth should care about biodiversity, he said.
“They’re here and if you believe in God, God made them,” Reichling said. “If you don’t believe in God, they’re part of our natural environment and they deserve to be here.”