By Carrie Flood

Aren’t giraffes cool? They’re regal, unapologetically lovely, and SUPER important to the functioning of a healthy Savanna habitat. 

We like them, too. That’s why we breed and release snakes.  

Narrow-headed gartersnake in hand, Phoenix ZooWait, what? AGAIN with the snakes??  

Yup. 

Regular readers of my posts may be asking themselves why I’m always on about snakes. What can I say? I’m a sucker for an underdog, and narrow-headed gartersnakes are an underdog if there ever was one.  

Native to the rocky creeks of central Arizona and New Mexico, the narrow-headed gartersnake (NHGS) is well adapted to its semiaquatic lifestyle. It uses its long tail to anchor itself while it waits in ambush for small fish to swim unsuspecting into its range. Its patterned scales help it to camouflage as it basks in the sun along the streamside vegetation. As predators, we know narrow-headed gartersnakes are important to protecting ecosystem balance and biodiversity, but the snake is in danger of disappearing before we fully understand its role in the habitat.  

Field surveys suggested that the population was on a precipitous path, declining by at least 50% by the early 2000s. To stop the decline, a working group was formed, made up of members from the Arizona and New Mexico Game and Fish Departments, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, the Phoenix Zoo and others. Working together, this group is focused on preserving the habitat and boosting the population of narrow-headed gartersnakes. Over time, the group determined that bringing a small group of individuals into managed care would increase our understanding of the snake and its requirements in the wild, which could be especially important if the downward trend in the field continued. The hope was that by bringing in a small research population before numbers in the wild became even more critical, we would be able to learn enough about the species’ biology to produce offspring that could then be released to augment the wild population. Rather than waiting to bring animals into human care as a last resort, wildlife agency biologists saw an important role for captive breeding for reintroduction as part of the ongoing conservation and management plan for this species.  

It turns out the snakes didn’t read the plan, and also that gartersnake reproduction is more complicated than putting two snakes together and getting baby snakes. Who knew? (Well, technically the snakes knew but they weren’t sharing.)  After five years, the considerable expertise of the Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation Conservation Center staff at the Phoenix Zoo, the generous funding of the specially designed outdoor Suzan L. Biehler Herpetarium, and countless sleepless nights finally paid off with the successful hatching of 18 baby narrow-headed gartersnakes. The following week, the snake was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, underscoring the importance of this accomplishment. But breeding success was just the first step; there is so much more to do secure the future for narrow-headed gartersnakes in the wild. 

As you’ve probably guessed by now, takes a village to conserve a snake. In 2016, the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation (ACNC) and University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment (SNRE) committed to jointly supporting a doctoral student fellowship focused on deepening our understanding of how Zoo-raised NHGS develop and behave both at the Zoo and after they’re released to the wild. The ultimate question is whether snakes who spend time in managed care behave in a “snakey” manner when in the wild – we want to know whether we’re meeting our goals of boosting the wild NHGS population with “real” snakes that contribute to their species’ success. We have been collecting data on NHGS behavior at the Zoo for years, first in the Biehler Herpetarium with help from ASU School of Life Sciences student researchers and soon in a new outdoor enclosure funded by the Arizona Game and Fish Department Heritage Fund grant program. We are working on multiple fronts in varied locations to better understand this species so we can focus our time and energy on the efforts that will have the best return on conservation investment.

In related news, ACNC/UA SNRE student fellow Brian Blais has collected data on snakes born at the Zoo and released to the wild in Arizona, tracking animals at the release site until their telemetry units dropped off after the snakes shed their skin (How do you put a tracking device on a snake? Duct tape, of course!). While duct tape is amazing, and this method allowed the snakes to move around safely without any literal or figurative hang-ups, it’s really hard to find the darn snakes after the telemetry units are shed. With that in mind, Brian is using remote-sensing camera-traps to hopefully capture NHGS on camera, and to get a better sense of what other animals are using the same habitat. So far, he’s seen everything from squirrels to songbirds and bobcats to black bears. We’re hoping he encounters some of the released NHGS again soon. Please send good snake-searching vibes if you’re so inclined. 

Speaking of searching, last month, biologists from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, US Forest Service, University of Arizona and ACNC located three neonates and one juvenile gartersnake in the wild to augment the population in managed care. Those individuals are now in quarantine at the Zoo, and we hope that soon they will offer a significant contribution to the genetic health of the managed population of snakes. Meanwhile, other partners are working hard doing the research necessary to secure the wild habitat, better understand its role in the ecosystem where it is found and raise awareness of the plight of this threatened little snake. 

The Arizona Center for Nature Conservation relies on the support of the community to do our part of this vital work, and we are grateful for every bit of it. There is nothing that makes us happier than seeing you get your first look at the baby giraffe at the Zoo, because we know that your support for our mission means we can continue to help save animals – big and small – and the wild places they need to survive.