Eastern Indigo Snake
The Eastern Indigo Snake
Eastern Indigo Snakes are one of the largest snakes in North America, reaching a maximum total length of 2.62 m (8 feet 7.1 inches). Most records of wild specimens 2.4 m (7 feet 10 inches) or longer have been from southern Florida. The species is fairly stout-bodied and sexually dimorphic in size, with males attaining greater lengths than females. Large males are typically 2.13-2.36 m (6 feet 11.9 inches to 7 feet 8.91 inches) and weigh 3.2-4.5 kg (7.05 to 9.92 pounds), while large females seldom exceed 2.0 m (6 feet 6.74 inches) and weigh 1.8-2.7 kg (3.97 to 5.95 pounds).
Eastern Indigo Snakes are a uniform bluish or gunmetal black both dorsally and ventrally. A wash of orange-red is often present on the chin, sides of the head, and throat. There is some variation in this as in northern Florida; where some populations have black lip scales and a white patch in the center of the throat rather than the orange-red. The orange-red pigment is more prominent in male Eastern Indigos and may extend onto the belly of some south Florida snakes.
The common name for Eastern Indigo Snakes relates to the large, smooth scales of this species which appear iridescent purple in sunlight. Adult males have partial keels on the scales of the middorsal 3-5 scale rows. Hatchling eastern indigos are sometimes more lighter-colored than adults with evidence of a faint pattern of cream speckling forming faint lateral bands.
The taxon was described by James Edward Holbrook in 1842, and named in honor of J. H. Couper who brought him the first specimen from south of the Altamaha River in Wayne County, Georgia. The species Drymarchon corais historically was considered a monotypic species with 8 to 12 subspecies; including D. c. couperi. In the early 1990s the eastern indigo snake, Drymarchon corais couperi, was elevated to full species level (Drymarchon couperi), and most herpetologists have adopted this suggestion, including the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. Populations of Eastern Indigo Snakes are isolated from their nearest relative, Drymarchon melanurus erebennus, by approximately 1,000 km (621.4 miles).
The Latin name for the genus Drymarchon roughly translates to "forest ruler", from the Greek words drymos, meaning forest, and archon meaning ruler. Eastern Indigo Snakes have a number of common names: indigo, blue indigo snake, black snake, gopher snake, blue gopher snake, and blue bull snake.
Eastern Indigo Snakes are a member of a species complex which is primarily tropical in distribution. Its range into temperate North America depends on the presence of deep animal-burrows (e.g., Gopher Tortoise burrows) to survive cold winter temperatures. Eastern Indigo Snakes occur throughout most of Florida and much of the Coastal Plain of southern Georgia. The historic range included southeastern Mississippi, southernmost Alabama, and possibly southeastern South Carolina; however, eastern indigo populations no longer inhabit these states.
The current strongholds for the species are peninsular Florida and southeastern Georgia. Eastern Indigo Snakes are rare and of very local occurrence in the Florida panhandle (west of Tallahassee) and in southwestern Georgia.
Throughout its range, the Eastern Indigo Snake can be found in a wide variety of habitats depending on the region in which it is found. In peninsular Florida, Eastern Indigo Snakes occur in diverse habitat types, including sandhills, oak scrub, sand pine scrub, mangrove swamps, wet prairies, cabbage palm-live oak hammocks, and pine flatwoods. Some Eastern Indigo populations in south Florida inhabit vegetated, rock-strewn canal banks surrounded by sugarcane fields or citrus groves.
In the northern parts of the range (i.e., southern Georgia and northern Florida (including the Panhandle region) Eastern Indigo Snakes appear to be dependent on Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) burrows for winter dens, and are more largely restricted to sandy, longleaf pine habitats. Gopher tortoise burrows in these areas play a central role in the ecology of eastern indigo snakes, particularly during ecdysis, and their presence will be required in repatriation sites at these northern latitudes. Additional refugia used throughout the year include stump holes, hollow logs, root channels, limestone solution holes, and land crab burrows.
In the Coastal Plain of Georgia Eastern Indigo Snakes favor wind-blown deposits of sand 3-9 m (9 feet 10 inches to 29 feet 6.3 inches) deep which are located along the northeastern sides of major blackwater streams. These extensive 8 km (4.971 miles) long xeric ridges of sands support barren environments with stunted turkey oaks and a patchy ground cover of saw palmetto, rosemary, mints, and reindeer lichens. These upland areas are used by Eastern Indigos during winter months while lowland habitats serve as foraging areas during the rest of the year. Wildlife corridors are important in linking these seasonal used habitats.
Site fidelity has been observed for adult Eastern Indigo Snakes in Georgia, emphasizing the importance of long-term burrow viability. In the cooler months, Eastern Indigos bask in the vicinity of the Gopher Tortoise burrows they are using as refugia. Basking often occurs at temperatures of 15.5-22.2°C (59.9-71.96°F) and at temperatures as low as 7.2°C (45°F).
Eastern Indigo Snakes have one of the largest home ranges compared to any other North American snake species. Home range size appears to fluctuate between sites in south Georgia/north Florida and more southern sites in Florida, with sites in southern Florida being smaller than those of their northern counterparts. In Georgia, females have been found to have a home range of around 100 ha and males around 500 ha (1,236 acres). In north Florida, females have a varying home range, between 23-281 ha (56.83-694.4 acres); while the males have a home rage of roughly 185 ha (457.1 acres).
Home range size and movement may be influenced by eastern indigo snake population densities, mating opportunities, prey abundance, and the distance traveled between winter refugia and seasonal foraging areas. Individual linear movements can also be significant. One Georgia specimen made a long-distance, interpopulation movement of 22.2 km (13 79 miles) straight line, or more possibly 27 km (16.78 miles), if the snake traveled through suitable habitat corridors.
Eastern Indigo Snakes are most mobile during the warmer months of the year (April-October). During this time they move often, and visit numerous habitats, especially low, shaded forests and wetlands where snake, frog, and rodent prey are abundant. Eastern Indigos are inactive for roughly two weeks when undergoing ecdysis. During this time they are often found in gopher tortoise burrow or similar retreats.
Eastern Indigo Snakes are indiscriminate carnivores known to feed on virtually any vertebrate they can overpower. They are a robust and domineering species that overpowers their prey by using strong jaws while pinning the prey item to the substrate with a body coil, they often swallow the prey alive. When feeding on snakes they may chew until the prey is immobilized, and then they are swallowed head first. Eastern indigos have a high degree of immunity to the venom of sympatric snakes, and suffer no lasting injury if they are bitten by venomous snakes on which they prey.
Eastern Indigo Snakes are known to feed on fish, frogs, toads, small alligators, hatchling aquatic turtles, hatchling and juvenile gopher tortoises, lizards, other snakes, birds and their eggs, and small mammals. An adult Eastern Indigo found in southern Georgia regurgitated a pigmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius), a hatchling gopher tortoise, a southern hognose snake (Heterodon simus), and a southern toad (Bufo terrestris). Eastern Indigos are sometimes cannibalistic but observations documenting this for wild snakes are rare.
Eastern Indigo Snakes have been characterized as a "late-maturing colubrid snake." These traits include high adult survivorship, high longevity, low to medium fecundity, small annual clutches, low juvenile survivorship, male-biased sexual size dimorphism, high ratio of mature to immature individuals in the population, and a significant proportion of the population that is older than 4 years old.
Sexual maturity in Eastern Indigos is reached in three to five years of age with a total length approaching 1.5-1.8 m (4 feet 11 inches to 5 feet 11 inches). Male Eastern Indigos are estimated to reach sexual maturity in two to three years, and females in three to four years. In southeast Georgia, it is assumed that males typically do not attempt to breed until two to three years old, and females typically breed at three to four years old; however, exceptions can occur as a two-year-old captured in Georgia was found to be gravid. A skewed sex ratio of 2:1 male to female was found at a Georgia study site, and may be the result of higher energetic costs associated with reproduction, higher predation rates, and/or higher overwinter mortality in females.
Eastern Indigo Snakes are active in the winter, emerging from refugia during suitable temperatures to bask and breed. With the advent of cooling temperatures and shortening day lengths in autumn, adult Eastern Indigos concentrate on sand ridges and other upland habitats to breed. Competition among males for mates may be intense, resulting in male-male combat rituals. This involves the males intertwining as they wrestle and fight, sometimes biting each other on the neck and inflicting deep gashes. The height of the mating season is November through January, but breeding can occur from October through March.
Females lay a single clutch of 4-14 large eggs between April-June, usually in an open-canopied sandy microhabitat. Eggs measure approximately 7.6cm (2.99 inches) in total length. The eggs are soft shelled, oval, and granular-surfaced. Females have the ability to retain live sperm for prolonged periods, possibly over four years, for later release and egg fertilization. Reports of nest sites are rare, but appear to be mostly associated with Gopher Tortoise burrows, especially abandoned burrows. Eggs hatch in August-September, and neonates measure 40.6 – 61 cm (1 foot 3.98 inches to 2 feet) upon hatching.
The Latin name for the genus Drymarchon roughly translates to "forest ruler", from the Greek words drymos, meaning forest, and archon meaning ruler.