Phoenix Zoo celebrates birth of 'newly threatened' gartersnakes

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey
By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey
By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- The Phoenix Zoo is celebrating the birth of 'newly threatened' narrow-headed gartersnakes.

The gartersnakes have recently been listed as "threatened" in the wild. And now the Phoenix Zoo has some brand new babies in its Conservation Center.

In 2007, the Zoo received a number of wild-caught, narrow-headed gartersnakes in hopes of developing a propagation and release program.

On the morning of July 2, 2014, a four-year-old gave birth to 18 babies in the Zoo's specially designed outdoor Suzan L. Biehler Herpetarium. All 18 offspring are healthy and were observed capturing live fish within 48 hours.

This birth comes at a critical time, since on July 7, 2014, the species was listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

"The birth of the narrow-headed gartersnakes here is a fulfillment of Phoenix Zoo's commitment to supporting native species conservation and recovery", says Stuart Wells, Director of Conservation sand Science at the Phoenix Zoo.  "Our dedicated staff has worked tirelessly for many years to achieve this goal.  We are proud of this accomplishment and pleased to contribute to the recovery of this species."

The narrow-headed gartersnake is a unique, highly aquatic species. Its numbers have been declining throughout its range in Arizona and New Mexico for over a decade. Many factors are contributing to the decline including drought, non-native invasive species, wildfire and agricultural/urban encroachment.

Beginning in 2006, the Gartersnake Conservation Working Group (GCWG), a multi-partner, collaborative effort, was formed by US Fish and Wildlife Service to help conserve and recover the northern Mexican gartersnake and the narrow-headed gartersnake.

"The narrow-headed gartersnake is a mid- to high-elevation, stream-dwelling species that is very sensitive to environmental and physical stress", explains Jeff Servoss, US Fish and Wildlife Service Chair of the Gartersnake Conservation Working Group. "These traits make this species a unique challenge for those trying to not only keep them alive in captivity, but also trying to produce offspring.  After many years of trying, by many different institutions, the Phoenix Zoo has finally produced viable narrow-headed gartersnakes.  This achievement is very noteworthy and a testament to the Zoo's relentless effort to identify the variables that have prevented breeding in the past. This is a significant achievement and a giant step forward for gartersnake conservation."

The offspring are being "head-started" for a period of six to nine months before most of them are released to the wild. The remaining few will be retained for the breeding program. The Zoo is proud of this accomplishment and appreciates the opportunity to support the conservation of wildlife in Arizona and throughout the world.