Brad O'Hanlon, Hannah Burke, and Jacob Sperber
In April of this year, nineteen federally threatened eastern indigo snakes were released at the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve in the Florida Panhandle. This event marked the seventh time that these serpents were released at the location, and another major step forward to return the ‘lord of the forest’ to landscapes where it once roamed. This effort is made possible by a collaborative effort including The Nature Conservancy, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and many other partners, including two intrepid young volunteers, Hannah Burke and Jacob Sperber, who we will meet through this article.
In total, 126 eastern indigo snakes have been released at this site with the goal of establishing a self-sustaining population. Releasing snakes at this site is only the first step towards their recovery, and in collaboration with the indigo snake release project occurring in Conecuh National Forest in Alabama, a comprehensive monitoring effort is underway in Florida. Many techniques are being used to document released animals, including pedestrian surveys, automated PIT tag scanners, and camera traps.
The camera traps provide an opportunity to document eastern indigo snakes and other wildlife within the release area. However, this is no small job. Michelle Hoffman, the monitoring lead based out of the OCIC, estimates that so far over seven million photos have been collected from over 35 monitoring stations at the preserve. Luckily, project volunteers Hannah Burke and Jacob Sperber are leading the charge to review these photos!
Hannah first became involved with the indigo snake monitoring effort in the fall of 2022 as an FWC intern while in her junior year at Florida State University. Jacob, a Senior in high school, made the connection with the OCIC and project through a friend in The Nature Conservancy. Reviewing photos from the project was suggested as a good way for him to contribute to the larger recovery efforts.
From here on, Hannah and Jacob explain the project in their own words.
“I’ve always loved snakes and scaly things, so when I found out I was going to aid in indigo snake conservation, I was ecstatic!” said Hannah. “I liked it so much that I proceeded to help with the project as a volunteer after my internship ended, and I continue to go through camera trap photos while juggling a work schedule and a full-time college course load.”
Cameras are set at individual gopher tortoise burrows and along drift fences between habitat types at the preserve. “Most importantly,” Jacob added, “it helps us track survival rates of the snakes, and whether they are successfully reproducing. Other goals of reviewing the photos are to see how much the snakes move around their environment. It is important to know, for example, whether the snakes stay near one gopher tortoise burrow, or move between burrows on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis.”
“The photos need to be reviewed manually because snakes aren’t the best candidates to set off motion sensor camera traps” explained Hannah. “They can be especially slow-moving and may sit in one location once in-frame for an extended amount of time. Artificial intelligence isn’t appropriate for reviewing these photos either, because most of the time an indigo snake is not always apparently an indigo snake – it could be a small glimpse of a tail or a large black mass hidden under some brush. It takes a careful eye to figure out exactly what you’re looking at, and you could be staring at a photo and not even realize an indigo snake is in it unless you compare it to the last photo taken. It’s meticulous work.”
While this sounds daunting, “it’s something I love doing. The fact that I can get excited over going through these photos in between study sessions as a college student solidifies that I am working toward the right career path” Hannah added.
Together, Hannah and Jacob have reviewed over 600,000 photos. It’s not always easy work. “I have seen at least 100 pictures that have indigo snakes in them,” Jacob noted, “but I am not yet skilled enough to determine if two pictures have the same snake. I’m happy to report that all the snakes I have seen look very healthy.”
Hannah has also been successful at documenting snakes. “Through the photos I have reviewed, I have documented 3 indigo snakes. This seems discouraging, but to me it’s a reminder that more work just needs to be done to ensure that the population can rebound to a self-sustaining size. It isn’t something that is just going to happen overnight. Even finding one indigo snake amidst all the photos makes the entire thing worth it.”
The project is rewarding for both students. “The most rewarding critter to find definitely has to be the indigo snake, but I’ve loved getting the chance to find pine snakes, coachwhip snakes, and adorable baby gopher tortoises in some of the shots!” said Hannah. “It gives you a bit of a sneak peek into some of these animals' lives and habits” she added.
Jacob has been able to take advantage of visiting the release site. “In addition to reviewing photos, my favorite critter I found was when I went to the release site and searched for indigo snakes. I got to use the burrow scope, which is a device designed to look down gopher tortoise holes (think video-camera-on-a-hose). At the very bottom of the burrow was an extremely cute, sleepy-looking gopher tortoise. Burrow scopes are amazing! They let you see down a 30 foot, twisting dirt tunnel. It was interesting to get to see in person what I usually see at my computer desk.”
Both Hannah and Jacob are interested in careers that keep them connected to wildlife. “After graduating from Florida State University, I plan to gain some hands-on experience working in multiple field technician positions for a couple of years. After that, I intend to pursue a master’s degree with the end goal of becoming a conservation biologist. This summer, I will be a field research intern in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory studying the effects of climate change on bumble bees and wildflowers” said Hannah.
Jacob still has time to fully consider his future. “I have an open mind about my career plans. However, I do know I want to help the environment in some way. I am thinking about going into either politics, to make better laws to help the earth, or engineering, or computer science. These fields have a lot of potential to do good environmental work.”
Hannah concluded “following my heart with biology has led to some of the most wonderful adventures I could have asked for, and I am so excited for what's next.”
The project partners are very grateful for Hannah’s and Jacob’s contributions to the reintroduction. With a little bit of luck, their hard work may just be how the first wild born eastern indigo snake is discovered at the Florida release site.