The Memphis Zoo will lead conservation efforts to save the Louisiana pine snake — the rarest snake in the United States. Longleaf pine forests, the pine snake's natural habitat, have been destroyed by urbanization, logging, and cultivation. Human alteration has pushed the species to near extinction, but the Memphis Zoo has a plan to save them. — Joshua Cannon
Flyer: How many pine snakes will the zoo have?
Matt Thompson: We will initially have approximately 20 snakes under our care beginning in late fall or early winter. The remaining snakes that are in 21 different zoos across the country will be distributed to three other locations: Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, Louisiana; Fort Worth Zoo in Fort Worth, Texas; and Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin, Texas.
Will the snakes be housed in an existing location or will one be built?
A Louisiana pine snake research facility will be built on zoo grounds near the giraffe barn, courtesy of funds from the U.S. Forest Service Catahoula District. The building, contracted by Mayer Construction Co. Inc., will cost just under $150,000 and will be pretty cut and dry — no fancy features since it will not be open to the public. It will include strong lights that will mimic sunlight and wall-to-wall cages. We hope to have it completed by mid-September.
What method will the zoo use to breed the snakes?
While there are various methods for breeding different types of snakes, the pine snake is bred using the standard practice for North American colubrids — non-venomous, egg-laying snakes. In the late fall/early winter, we lower their temperature in a controlled setting, essentially hibernating them. Once spring rolls around and hibernation ends, the snakes are paired together to facilitate breeding.
What led the pine snakes to near extinction?
The population of the Louisiana pine snake has dwindled due in part to the loss of its habitat, longleaf pine forests. The lush forests once stretched across the Southeast from East Texas to the Atlantic coastline, covering an estimated 90 million acres until their decline began 150 years ago.
Because the trees were so abundant many years ago, settlers saw them as an inexhaustible resource, clearing the longleaf pine forests to make way for human development and agriculture, as well as using the high-quality lumber to build ships and railroads. Now, the trees can only be found in patches throughout those regions.
Once settlers discovered the vast loss of the trees, they replaced them with fast-growing pines that would produce economic benefits much more quickly than their predecessors. However, replacing the longleaf pines caused the areas the snakes once inhabited to no longer be a good fit for the species to thrive.
How many pine snakes are left?
There are 108 Louisiana pine snakes held in captivity in the United States. They're also found in the wild but sparingly to say the least. The snake is the rarest in North America with fewer than 250 specimens that have been found in the wild.
When did the zoo begin breeding pine snakes, and how many have been successfully re-entered into the wild?
The Memphis Zoo began breeding Louisiana pine snakes in 2010. Over the last six years, we have released 50 pine snakes into the wild at an experimental site in Grant Parish, Louisiana, on the Catahoula District of Kisatchie National Forest. Now that this conservation effort is being kicked up a notch, we're looking forward to increasing that number exponentially over the next few years. We estimate that each of the four conservation sites will produce about 100 snakes annually.