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Conservation, News,

Just Hatched at the Tulsa Zoo: Four Rare Louisiana Pine Snakes

After a four-year effort to breed one of the rarest vertebrates in North America, the Tulsa Zoo welcomes four healthy Louisiana pine snake hatchlings.

“Upgrades to the temperature control units on the building have allowed us to accurately and safely drop temperatures to simulate a natural period of dormancy called brumation, something the snakes need to reproduce successfully,” says, Barry Downer, Zoological Curator, Herpetology & Aquatics.

Of the seven eggs laid on May 10, two were infertile, one died early on, and the remaining four were artificially incubated, Downer says. The first hatchling pipped, or cut through its shell, on July 8, after a 60-day incubation period. The remaining three were out of their eggs by July 13.

The zoo’s breeding efforts are part of the Species Survival Plan ® (SSP), a collaborative program of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) to manage threatened and endangered species. The breeding pair consists of a 12-year-old male received from the Sedgwick County Zoo in 2008 and an 11-year-old female received in 2009 from the Roger Williams Park Zoo.

Originally calling nine Louisiana parishes and 14 Texas counties home, this snake now is found in only four parishes and is believed by some to have vanished from Texas as of early 2013, Downer says. The Louisiana Pine Snake is state classified as “threatened” in Texas, protected from direct harm and unauthorized collection, and as “imperiled-to-vulnerable” in Louisiana. The primary threat has been habitat degradation.

The Louisiana pine snake’s preferred habitat is longleaf and shortleaf pine forests, which also is home to the snake’s preferred food item, the Baird’s pocket gopher. The snakes also use the gopher burrow system as shelter from temperature extremes. Protecting the habitat also protects Navasota ladies’-tresses, Texas trailing phlox and the red-cockaded woodpecker, all federally listed as endangered, as well as offering protection for other at-risk plant and animal species.

The public can see one of Tulsa Zoo’s new additions on display in the Conservation Center while the snake and one of its siblings await SSP recommendations to be placed at another accredited facility. The other two will be reintroduced into the wild as part of conservation efforts developed in partnership with the AZA and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as other state and federal agencies.

About the Louisiana pine snake (Pituophis ruthveni)

  • Non-venomous constrictor.
  • Large in size – typically 4-5 feet long.
  • Produces the largest eggs of any U.S. snake (typically 5 inches long and 2 inches wide).
  • Produces the largest hatchlings of any North American snake (ranges 18-22 inches in length, and up to 107 grams).
  • Primary diet includes Baird’s pocket gophers. The Louisiana Pine Snake, rather than wrapping around its meal, burrows into pocket gopher tunnels to trap rodents against passage walls.