Indigo Snake Sampling and the Annual SEPARC Meeting

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A large male indigo snake observed on an eDNA survey in southeast Georgia. – Houston Chandler

I recently spent three weeks traversing the southeast in support of various Science Initiative projects. My trip started in Raleigh, North Carolina at NC State University where I met with Drs. Tom Akre (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) and Ivana Mali (NC State) to discuss our upcoming Spotted Turtle projects. A productive discussion laid the groundwork for the spring field season and generated a roadmap for working on Spotted Turtles over the next three years. We even managed to find a bit of time to make a quick site visit to a property with a recently discovered Spotted Turtle population.

Meeting with partners to discuss flatwoods salamander conservation in Georgia. – Houston Chandler

From North Carolina, I made my way down to southwest Georgia for a meeting with GA DNR, GA DOT, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and researchers from the Jones Center to discuss Reticulated Flatwoods Salamander conservation in Georgia. We examined some wetlands that provide breeding habitat and talked about potential next steps for management of this critically imperiled species. Later this spring, we are starting a new project in this region examining how the hydrology of salamander breeding wetlands can be impacted by vegetation management over time. I am excited about the possibilities for making meaningful conservation impacts for flatwoods salamanders in Georgia.

Back in southeast Georgia, I had my sights set on spending some time in the field on our various indigo snake projects. The last time I was able to participate in an indigo survey was in 2019 before I started my PhD. I joined Ben and Peyton on a cloudy but warm winter day to survey a couple of our long-term occupancy monitoring sites. Despite checking several hundred tortoise burrows, we did not see any snakes or snake signs (likely a function of less than optimal habitat). The following week I did find an indigo snake shed while surveying another site. Indigo snakes often get more challenging to detect later in the season as the weather begins to warm.

The long-term monitoring surveys weren’t my only chance to see snakes as we are also sampling as part of our ongoing effort to test eDNA sampling techniques for indigo snakes. We conducted the final survey at one of these survey sites, which involved scooping a lot of sand samples into small tubes. These samples are then sent to the lab where they are analyzed to test for the presence of snake DNA. As luck would have it, we encountered two indigo snakes during this survey, a relatively large male and a smaller female. These snake captures provide important data points because we are able to sample sand directly from where the snake was crawling (an optimal situation for DNA detection).

A large female indigo snake that was reintroduced several years prior onto the Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama. – Houston Chandler

The third week of my trip took me to Alabama. The first thing on the agenda was our final eDNA survey at the indigo snake reintroduction site on Conecuh National Forest. I have been involved with discussions about this site for many years but had never actually seen it in person. This visit was a great opportunity to better understand the dynamics in this reintroduced population as well as some of the future challenges to reintroduction success. It was also exciting to get to see one of the snakes that was released at this site several years prior. I am optimistic that this project will ultimately be successful and see indigo snakes returned to the western portion of their historic range.

Houston, Ben, and Peyton at the annual SEPARC meeting in Alabama.

The last leg of my trip was spent at the annual Southeastern Partners for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SEPARC) meeting near Nauvoo, Alabama. At the meeting, I gave a presentation on the 20-year history of flatwoods salamander conservation work on Eglin Air Force Base. This work has seen substantial commitments to habitat management and a gradual increase in the number of sites occupied by flatwoods salamanders. Ben and Peyton presented a poster on our indigo snake eDNA work, and Ben also won 1st place in the amphibian photo context and 3rd place in the reptile photo contest. One of the best parts about SEPARC is getting to see friends and colleagues from around the region. This year three Orianne alumni were in attendance, and longtime Orianne staff member, Dirk Stevenson, was recognized for his contributions to herpetofaunal conservation in the southeast. Finally, it was rewarding to see several Orianne small grant recipients present their research, including Corrie Navis (Striped Newts), Kiersten Nelson (Gopher Frogs), and Krista Ruppert (amphibian communities in south Alabama).

A Green Salamander from northern Alabama. – Houston Chandler
Characteristic Green Salamander habitat includes damp rock faces with cracks for salamanders to shelter in. – Houston Chandler

At the end of the SEPARC meeting, we took a bit of a break and spent some time searching for salamanders. The highlight for me was getting to see several Green Salamanders, which I have encountered only infrequently over the years. A great way to end a productive trip.