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Dec. 1, 2022
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Memphis Zoo Aligns with Mission to Save Species from Extinction

Memphis Zoo Aligns with Mission to Save Species from Extinction

On the eve of Earth Day 2022, Dr. Steve Reichling, Conservation and Research Director at the Memphis Zoo, set out to release 61 endangered Louisiana pine snakes into their wild habitat in the Kisatchie National Forest in the heart of Louisiana. He was joined by his research team from the Memphis Zoo as well as partners on the project from Fort Worth Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Forest Service.

The research program has been running for 12 years under the leadership of Dr. Reichling. In 2010, when they saw the wild populations rapidly declining, Dr. Reichling and his team at the Memphis Zoo took charge to revive the Louisiana pine snake and repopulate the species in its natural habitat. Through meticulous captive breeding programs that involve artificial insemination (AI) as well as natural breeding, the research team has produced hundreds of fertile eggs which they have raised and prepped to be released into the wild. The Memphis Zoo is the only zoo who uses AI to breed a reptile that is then used in conservation. This process has allowed for many more snakes to be released year after year.

During the annual release, the team brings juvenile pine snakes into their indigenous habitat and safely guides them into stump holes and pocket gopher tunnels, which is their main prey. Remarkably, the research team has discovered that snakes from previous releases have begun breeding naturally in the wild. This is a monumental discovery that shows the captive-bred snakes have successfully adapted to the area and will hopefully recover from its endangered status giving hope to the future of this species.

The Louisiana pine snake persists in only three tiny areas of suitable habitat. With advanced research monitoring, it has been documented that populations continue to rapidly decline in all of the natural habitats. Unfortunately, protecting the habitat alone will not recover the species. Only bold action provides a chance for this snake to avoid impending extinction in the wild. Without the leadership of the Memphis Zoo research team, the populations of the Louisiana pine snake would have been decimated and lost to their natural environment forever. We are proud of the work being done by the Memphis Zoo research team on this project and their continued efforts to live out our mission to save wildlife day after day.

About Louisiana Pine Snakes

The Louisiana Pine Snake is an endangered species native to the longleaf pine forests of Louisiana and Texas. They prefer the sandy, well-drained soils of open pine forests. They are the rarest snakes in North America. They are non-venomous with distinctive tan bodies patterned with blackish-brown splotches down their back. Their main prey source is the pocket gopher, which is prevalent in their ecosystem. They tend to live in the holes of pocket gophers and spend more than half their lives below ground. This snake species is unique in that they not only lay the largest eggs of any snake in North America, but they produce the fewest eggs per clutch. This low fecundity rate magnifies the other threats to pine snakes, such as deforestation, that negatively impacts their population sizes.