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Texas zoo working to protect threatened Louisiana pine snake

While most view snakes as threatening, a recent review lists an East Texas variety as threatened.

As part of the process mandated by the Endangered Species Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Service conducts five-year status reviews of 35 endangered or threatened fish, wildlife and plants. The most recent review lists the Louisiana pine snake—which is indigenous to west-central Louisiana and East Texas—as threatened.

In their efforts to help protect the species, staff members at Ellen Trout Zoo have been working with other zoos across the country — including the Memphis Zoo, the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and the Fort Worth Zoo — to protect the pine snake.

Due to their efforts, there are currently 150 Louisiana pine snakes at Ellen Trout Zoo.

Previously, there were about 20 zoos participating in the pine snake survival species plan, and the species coordinator asked everybody to breed the pine snakes, then send the offspring to the partnering zoos, zoo director Gordon Henley said.

“We would get five or six specimens a year, then we had another sit-down with the steering committee and said, ‘Let’s consolidate it among the zoos willing to make a commitment,’” he said. “We had been breeding all of the ones that are Texas or the southern population, which is defined as being south of the Red River.”

At the time, there were about 119 snakes total spread among the zoos, Henley said.

A mating pair of Louisiana pine snakes at Lufkin’s Ellen Trout Zoo.

Lufkin Daily News, JOEL ANDREWS/The Lufkin Daily Ne

“Now, we’re looking at close to 150 right here, and each of the other zoos is maintaining close to 100,” he said. “A little over 300 of them into the national forest in Louisiana, so that consolidation worked.”

The northern population of snakes is managed by the Memphis Zoo and the Fort Worth Zoo, Henley said.

“All the ones that they’re breeding, they’re going through and maintaining a certain number for keeping their population going and releasing animals,” he said. “Last month, they released about 60 more over there in Louisiana, and they’re all reproducing in that site, and the people monitoring it are picking up babies — they all have a radio transmission in them.”

As the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ philosophy of species survival plans changes, what the zoos are doing together will become a consortium-managed species, Henley said.

The program is not as simple as breeding the snakes and then releasing them into the wild, Henley said.

“It’s got all kinds of twists and turns in it,” he said. “We’ve been breeding them with no release site — so every year, we’ll get 40, 50 babies and we keep them.”

The zoo has to locate an optimal female snake and an optimal male snake and place them together in a box, said Robert Jackson, collection manager of reptiles and amphibians at Ellen Trout Zoo. In some cases, he places two females and a male in one box, he said.

“They have a little bit more of a naturalistic setup,” he said. “They have a couple of different nest-laying boxes; they’ve got natural substrate they can burrow in, we give them some branches and some bark to hide under, crawl over.”

The zoo has snakes from both Texas and Louisiana, Jackson said. In 2021, they hatched 44 eggs, which is the most they have hatched so far, he said.

“We have kept some Texas pairings, and then we do Louisiana pairings, and then we have a couple we mix together,” he said. “We sit down and try to look at their parentage, their background and try to look for that genetic diversity so we get the best, well-rounded pairings.”

Any adult snake — or “sub adults” that are close to breeding age — have to be cooled down in the winter just like they would in the wild, Jackson said.

“They follow that natural cycle — cooling and warming,” he said.

The zoo is able to produce more reproductive success because it is able to control the temperature of the room where the snakes are located, Jackson said.

“We had kind of a warm winter this year, and I don’t know how that affects snakes in the wild, but they get the cool dips and they get exposed, so you’re still going to get reproduction, but do you have less overall with wild species because you didn’t have as consistently cool of a winter?” he said. “Here, we’re able to control those parameters and manipulate it with a little more consistency.”

“We’re able to take a space like this and make a significant impact on a species,” Henley added.

Ellen Trout Zoo is currently looking for a location to release the Louisiana pine snakes that they have at the zoo, Henley said.

“This will be an opportunity for land owners who have sizable land — four or five thousand acres — of longleaf pine where they don’t mind having them, or the forest service,” he said. “We’re really interested in being able to release these animals.”

Although the zoo is involved in other conservation efforts, it is just as important to protect native species, Henley said.

“Native animals have as great a value in our environment as the exotic animals, and I think it’s important for us, for our zoo and our people to value what we have right here in our own backyard and realize the importance and significance of our own local wildlife,” he said.

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