I recently sojourned to the sandy palmetto lands of South Georgia’s low country in search of giant snakes—one, a robust viper that often tops five feet (eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus), the other an iridescent blue and imperiled colubrid, the eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi). Following a frosty morning apropos for the Holiday Season (with overnight lows the previous eve kissing 30F), we embarked on a lengthy hike across a massive dune of gray-white sand peppered with turkey oaks, yucca and cacti; dozens of yellow mounds, the aprons of burrows excavated by adult gopher tortoises, dotted the horizon…My guide, Dirk Stevenson, a field herpetologist with The Orianne Society, inventories and monitors populations of these snakes throughout southern Georgia. Dirk mentioned that, starting around late October, the “snake-hunting” gets pretty interesting in these environs, as the diamondbacks and the indigos, both migratory species that may roam up to several miles from these austere ridges in search of richer feeding grounds, pilgrimage back to the safe and cozy refugia of the deep tortoise burrows. One will sometimes spot a fresh smear as wide as a man’s boot across the sand trail at this time – the track of an adult diamondback or indigo.
I had the pleasure of being in the field with some very knowledgeable, good-natured people. There of course was Dirk Stevenson, a herpetologist of distinction and repute. Frankie Snow, who is an academic in the truest of form; he is both an archaeologist and an accomplished naturalist. Frankie and I talked of subjects ranging from Spanish Conquistadors to the now extinct in the wild Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha). Lastly, there was David Jones. David had the honor of snake hunting with Carl Kauffeld in his youth. David works in restoration of native southeastern plants. I can only imagine how much native vegetation he has seen dwindle and disappear in his lifetime. I could not have asked for finer company as I sought to see my first wild indigo snake. My spirits were high as we headed into the interior of a large tract of longleaf pine —turkey oak sand hill under a clear cerulean sky.
David and Frankie walked off down a narrow cut; a sandy trail leading to a xeric ridge, and I followed close behind. They took quick notice of a gopher tortoise burrow, slightly obscured by some wiregrass and a few dead sticks. I noticed the pair was looking at something, and curious to see what the experienced men had found, I joined them. Frankie was talking to David about the burrow as I walked up, then in mid sentence he said: “there is the indigo”. He pointed and my eyes quickly followed and met with an enormous, fast moving, black form slithering among the deadfall and heading straight for the burrow. My pulse quickened. I reacted and immediately thrust my grasping hands through the tangled branches and gripped the snake’s latter portion. Frankie encouraged me to gently untangle the snakes fore body, which it was using very effectively to anchor itself. I could hardly contain my excitement as I tried working the snake loose from the scrub. Finally, with one hand holding near the tail and the other working to unravel the snake, I eventually freed the titan serpent from its cover.
I was overcome with an excitement that expressed itself as shaking knees and an indelible smile. The weight and strength of the indigo snake was comparable to any large boid of equal length, but with the speed and agility of Pantherophis. I could see why this snake is called “Emperor”. The moment was surreal; I held the snake skyward and witnessed the scales glimmer in the sunlight. Nothing reveals the beauty of a snake’s true color like unfiltered sunlight, and the indigo is truly one of the most brilliantly illuminated unicolor snake species that I have seen. There was a splash of red at the tip of the rostrum as well as a speckling of red on the throat and bottom jaw.
Dirk soon arrived on scene upon hearing the excitement, and I reluctantly handed the snake over to him so that I could freely search for my camera. I dug into my bag and pulled out my Canon and began taking pictures of Dirk with the first indigo of our trip. Dirk and Frankie must have seen hundreds of indigos during their surveys, but I could see by the look on their faces that they were equally as excited as I was. I was the scribe for this trip, so I recorded species count, sex, snout-vent and total length, mass, PIT tag code, whether or not the snake was a recapture, time of capture, and GPS coordinates for Dirk. I had the honor of setting the snake free; it slipped eagerly out of my hand like rapidly paid rope, and liquid soot vanished into the burrow.
We constantly referred to a set of topographical maps that Dirk carried, and after briefly discussing property boundaries and preferable search areas, we set off on foot down a soft, sugary sand road. We radiated out into the pine forest, and the warm December morning having already produced one indigo, kept each man holding his breath for the next one. I wandered off toward a few burrows I spotted at a distance by noticing the contrast in color between the burrow aprons and surrounding vegetation; it is a visual tactic I am used to using in the mountains to spot rocks. However, they produced no indigos, so I sought after Dirk and the crew.
I spotted another set of burrows in the pines that looked promising, so I headed for them. I approached quietly, peered along the grassy perimeter of the hole, scanned the apron for evidence of serpent egress, but saw nothing. I almost walked away, but after scanning the ground some ten feet from the burrow, I caught sight of a large black snake coiled perfectly atop a carpet of pine needles. I called out to the group with excitement, “INDIGO, INDIGO, coiled in situ in the pine straw!” I immediately went down to my knees, slipped my pack off and quickly dug out my camera. I crept up to the coiled snake with my camera held at my aiming eye, and snapped a few shots before the snake unraveled and bolted. I followed suit and caught the big male before it found the burrow. However, the glory of my life’s first indigo spot and capture was short lived. Frankie spotted another one only 20 yards distant from my own, and coiled in much the same fashion in bright splashes of morning sun. Dirk was quick on his feet and caught the third indigo of the day in only an hour’s time. It was only 11:18 in the morning!
Dirk Stevenson gave me a first rate indigo snake natural history lesson in one of the greatest classroom settings possible for a student of nature - the wild out of doors. A few bits of shed skin was discovered just feet from the indigo that I found, and Dirk explained to me that it looked to be from a female and that our male was most likely courting her down in the burrow. Dirk sent me a picture some months prior to our having met in the field, of a male indigo with the unmistakable dentition markings from another powerful colubrid on its neck. The tissue-deep U shaped wound could have only been inflicted by another indigo snake, and this was showing us that indigos would resort to biting during combat. Dirk and I looked over the two males, but found no obvious bite marks. Despite a few old scars, these two snakes were in great shape. During the examination one of the males musked, a smell I affectionately call the dragon reek (after Tolkien’s dragons), and it lingered through the rest of the day – a phantom reminder that indigos crawl in December.
It was now near one in the afternoon, and David had gone for home leaving just Dirk, Frankie, and myself. We were exploring a different region of the vast property, a xeric ridge bisected by a gas line and power line and then terminating at a clear cut. Dirk wasn’t long searching among ideal habitat before he called out he had found an indigo. I sprang into action when I saw the snake was quickly moving toward a nearby burrow. I slid up to the snake on my knees, and as gently as possible, I caught her and carried her to Dirk for processing.
This was the fourth snake of the day, and it was a beautiful, six foot female; she was a lustrous iridescence. Dirk presented me with a view of the vent and subcaudal scales, and then proceeded to explain characteristics in tail shape and structure of a female indigo snake versus a male. There were bits of shed skin lying near by, from what looked like multiple snakes of different sexes. Dirk grabbed one piece and, remaining true to his professorship, he explained how it is possible to tell the gender of a Drymarchon couperi by examining dorsal scales along the backbone. In males, there is a short keel, or a dash that does not quite span the length of an individual scale; female indigo snakes have smooth – more feminine scales.
Dirk encouraged Frankie and I to continue searching a perimeter, since he expected a male to be near by. After a lengthy walk among many burrows, we found no other snakes sitting on the surface. It was two in the afternoon and surprisingly hot. One sound that was eerily missing in the heat was the piercing, undulating buzz of the cicada. Despite the beautiful weather, a thorough search of other sections of the monitoring site, this was to remain a four indigo day. I left the woods that day with a great air of pride. I felt proud that Georgia is home to such an iconic reptile as the eastern indigo, and proud that I was able to seek them out and discover them in the freedom of the South Georgia out of doors.
There is a common saying in herp conservation: “it isn’t just the charismatic megafauna that are in need of saving”. I have no idea where it came from, where or when I first heard it, but it alludes to the daunting challenge presented to conservationist working to save wildlife that the majority of people would rather do without. Biologists with The Orianne Society, a pioneering group that champions the conservation of native snakes through research, habitat management, captive breeding and environmental education, are dedicated to the recovery of the eastern indigo snake population in the wild. The Orianne Society manages a preserve, the Orianne Society Indigo Snake Preserve (or OISP), which is a one of a kind management area and a sanctuary for numerous wildlife species dependent upon the longleaf pine ecosystem and the xeric sand ridge community. To learn more about the work the Orianne Society is doing please visit their website www.oriannesociety.org, and consider becoming a member of this exceptional conservation group.