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Endangered Louisiana pine snake gets assist from Pittsburgh zoo

| Tuesday, May 3, 2011

For Henry Kacprzyk, there's no such thing as too many snakes.

The curator of Kids Kingdom and reptiles at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is closely watching four Louisiana pine snake eggs, keeping them at the proper light and temperature, and waiting patiently.

He hopes that a month from now, they'll hatch and become four new members of an endangered species to be reintroduced into the wilds of Louisiana.

"They really are beautiful snakes," Kacprzyk said. "They just reproduce so slowly in the wild, and they need our help."

The snake is found in six small areas in Louisiana and Texas, said Steve Reichling, curator of reptiles at the Memphis Zoo and the Louisiana pine snake coordinator for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

But for several years, logging and development increasingly have destroyed its habitat, and the snake's numbers are dwindling.

Reichling said the snake, which typically grows to 5 to 6 feet long, is "a very good contender for the most endangered snake in the United States."

The Highland Park zoo keeps three Louisiana pine snakes and is participating in a captive breeding program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. Now several years old, the program attracted 18 zoos across the country, said Michael Sealy, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Louisiana Ecological Services office.

Zoos breed snakes with the hope of getting viable eggs in spring. In all, 22 adult pairs are in the program, Reichling said, and the potential exists for up to 80 eggs to hatch soon.

"That may be too optimistic, but we'll see," he said.

Biologists last year began releasing hatched snakes into fenced and monitored areas of Louisiana. They implant the snakes with computer chips so scientists can track them and their breeding patterns. The snakes begin reproducing after age 3.

Last week, Kacprzyk stood outside Kid's Kingdom as Acadia, an 11-year-old female Louisiana pine snake, wound around his left arm. The brown-and-yellow snakes can strike forward with two-thirds of their body length, and often mimic the tail rattling and coiling of rattlesnakes when they perceive a threat.

They lay three to five eggs at a time, Kacprzyk said, and the eggs have a 60-day gestation.

Sealy said eight snakes hatched in the breeding program were released April 13 into the Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana, bringing the total released since last year to 19. Reichling said it's the first time such a program has been tried as a way to bring a species back from the brink of extinction.

"It's a very unique snake, and this is a very good conservation program," Sealy said. "We have a lot of people working very hard to give this snake a chance."

The snake burrows underground and spends nearly 80 percent of its time there, Sealy said, making it hard for scientists to determine how extensive its population is. The snakes eat pocket gophers, Reichling said.

Biologists found the snake in three "slivers" of sandy-soil, longleaf pine forests in Louisiana and three areas in Texas, but they have not spotted the snakes in Texas for a few years.

"That is a serious cause for concern because it probably means they are extinct there," Reichling said.

He has an answer for people who question why biologists would work to introduce more snakes into the wild.

"It's a totally human bias to say that giant pandas are cute and cuddly and deserve a conservation program but snakes, well, ew," Reichling said. "But conservationists don't think like that. You can't pick and choose nature. Snakes are just as much a part of our ecosystem as any other creature. If this program doesn't work, this will probably spell the end of this snake in the wild."

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