Rowdy reptiles

UF professor working with conservation group to save Eastern indigo snakes

Darryl HeardFor several years, Darryl Heard, Ph.D., BVMS, an associate professor of zoological medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine, has offered his expertise to a local research study focusing on Eastern indigo snakes in Florida and Georgia.

Eastern indigo snakes are considered a threatened species, meaning they could be at the brink of extinction in the future.

The project is led by Javan Bauder, a University of Massachusetts graduate student working under support from the Orianne Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the science-based conservation of endangered snake species around the world. This particular study focuses on the effects of non-natural landscapes on indigo snake population viability in Florida.

To track the snakes’ movements, Heard helped surgically place radio transmitters in the snakes. He also helped provide veterinary services for the Orianne Society throughout the process.

“He’s been instrumental in the whole fieldwork,” said Fred Antonio, director of the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation. “We’re very pleased with the service.”

The research project began in December 2010 to collect data on the snakes’ movement and habitat selection in Highlands County, Florida. The researchers tracked 30 snakes, monitoring them two to four times a week to record information regarding their location and behavior. The research concluded in October 2013 and now Bauder is analyzing the data to help identify where viable populations occur.

So far, they have found that indigo snakes have a relatively large home range compared with other species of snakes. However, their home range size is smaller than those of indigo snakes in Georgia. Bauder thinks this is due to regional differences in climate and resources but hopes his gathered data from the project can provide substantial evidence and help researchers understand the differences.

Heard has years of experience working with reptiles and non-domestic, or exotic, species. 

Faculty and staff members associated with the zoological medicine service at UF, which falls under the department of small animal clinical sciences, all work with non-domestic animals, especially reptiles. They also have participated in other similar projects with different species of snakes.

“Having access to that high level of treatment and care for our snakes was vital for our study,” Bauder said.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant helped fund their research.

“At the University of Florida, we provide our own skills and knowledge base, and we bring those to the table to assist conservation efforts with wildlife in Florida,” Heard said.