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WILD THING

Life Underground

Texas zoos work to save the Louisiana pine snake.


Considered one of the rarest snakes in North America, the Louisiana pine snake once ranged from East Texas to west-central Louisiana. Loss of habitat and the snake’s tendency to spend much of its life underground ensure that even the most dedicated herpetologists and snake enthusiasts have difficulty locating the shy forest dweller.

The scarcity of sightings may seem odd considering the reptile is a large constrictor that can grow up to five feet, with earthy brown, checkered patterns on a white-and-yellow background. However, the snake doesn’t spend much time on the forest floor, instead hunting Baird’s pocket gophers in their burrows. Unlike most constrictors that tend to coil around their prey, the Louisiana pine snake slithers down into the narrow burrow past the gopher, turning around to pin it against the wall, suffocating it.

The destruction of longleaf pine habitat has been a major factor in the reduced population of the Louisiana pine snake. Like the Baird’s pocket gopher and the red-cockaded woodpecker, these snakes thrive in fire-adapted longleaf pine savannahs with sparsely covered sandy soils. Commercial harvesting of the longleaf pine and fire suppression throughout the 20th century changed the characteristics of the southern pine forest. Once the dominant plant community of the South, covering 90 million acres, only 3 percent of longleaf habitat remains.

Snake lovers, take heart! While this threatened reptile’s future is uncertain, conservation efforts may bring it back from the brink. The Fort Worth Zoo and the Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin are working with the National Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other national zoos to breed and release the Louisiana pine snake.

Hatchlings are usually born in July. After a year of care and feeding, researchers implant the snakes with microchips and release them.

Vicky Poole, assistant curator of ectotherms at the Fort Worth Zoo, says over the past several years, the zoo sent 99 of their offspring to Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana for reintroduction and release (36 this past April). The zoo can hold 100 breeding adults (50 pairs) selected based on heritage “so that we can avoid inbreeding in order to produce the most genetically diverse and fit animals for release.”

In Texas, the Louisiana pine snake remains a threatened species, making it illegal for people to collect, harm or sell them. 

  Pete Oxford / Minden Pictures

Common name:

Louisiana pine snake

Scientific name:

Pituophis ruthveni

Habitat:

Longleaf pine forests of East Texas

Diet:

Primarily pocket gophers; also amphibians and bird eggs

Did you know?

They produce the largest eggs and hatchlings of any U.S. snake

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