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Endangered Northern Ring-headed Snake Gets Help From Phoenix Zoo

By Sarah Min Heller Cronkite News

PHOENIX – An endangered species for nearly a decade, the northern butt snake is finding new life and help from scientists at the Phoenix Zoo.

Tara Harris, director of conservation and science at the Phoenix Zoo, said 40 such snakes were born at her Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Conservation Center in 2022. That was by far the most since the start. program in 2007, and Harris hopes the zoo will have another successful year.

“These narrow-headed snakes are Arizonans like you and me, but their future in our state is uncertain and they need our help,” Harris said.

The aquatic snake, native to central and eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, has been in decline for two to three decades, said Mason Ryan, garter snake projects coordinator at the Department of Arizona game and fishing.

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The snake lives in cool rocky areas in or near waterways; it has been listed as threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service since 2014 and is protected by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.

In general, snakes are beneficial creatures, acting as a natural pest control and adding to food web biodiversity, Ryan said. These snakes are threatened primarily by invasive species in the state, and bolstering their population has proven tricky.

Invasive species such as crayfish and bullfrogs that compete with or eat snakes pose a major threat, Harris said. Snakes specialize in eating fish, which doesn’t help, Ryan said. Arizona ranks as the state with the highest percentage of declining native fish species, according to the Federal Register.

Birds of prey, raccoons and other snakes are some of the predators of the narrow-headed snake.

“The species is quite difficult to breed,” Ryan added, explaining that it could take years to know if breeding and releases can have a big impact. The Phoenix Zoo has only bred 84 narrow-headed snakes since the program began in 2007. The snakes are born alive and unhatched from an egg.

Ryan said the snakes were released in Gila County’s Canyon Creek, which stretches from the Tonto National Forest to the Fort Apache Reservation. There were 24 juvenile garter snakes and one adult released last summer, Harris said, adding that snakes are released at different stages of development to see which survives best.

Because the snakes are typically about 3 feet long or less and are hard to find, Harris said they’re labeled with numbers that can be read using a black light. Ryan said larger snakes may have a tracking device implanted under their skin.

Harris said it was a learning process to find a method to get the snakes to reproduce. The zoo uses an enclosure that mimics the snakes’ natural habitat with a brumation zone – a lazy state for garter snakes in winter – running water, fish and trees.

Juveniles live in the “snake lab,” Harris said. They are kept in a tank with a lid that lets in heat and light from a heat lamp. Inside there is almost all the water with fish, plus a platform with small shelters on the surface of the water.

In 2021, the federal government helped by designating 447 miles of protected waterways for garter snakes, or 23,785 protected acres in Arizona and New Mexico, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Harris said the public can help protect these snakes by not using invasive species as bait and by not bringing in fish. Teaching and learning about gartersnakes and volunteering is another way to help, Ryan said.

“It’s nice to have these creatures in the landscape,” Ryan said, adding that it would be sad if future generations could never see the garter snakes.

The Phoenix Zoo, which has focused on plant and animal conservation for decades, is currently working to increase the population of black-footed ferrets, Chiricahua leopard frogs, ferruginous pygmy owls, desert pupfish and more. in addition to the narrow-headed snake. .

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