41 ‘apex predators’ — that eat venomous snakes — released in north Florida. Here’s why.

Wildlife researchers trekked through the tall grass in north Florida, unbothered by the long, slithering “apex predator” species in their hands.

The researchers were at the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve on April 30 to deposit 41 of those creatures back into nature.

They’re eastern indigo snakes, the longest snake species in the U.S., and they play “a vital role in the circle of life here,” according to James Bogan Jr., the director of Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation.

Bogan said he feels “a touch of pride” at the eighth annual reintroduction of the species, the most in one year so far, according to news release from the Central Florida Zoo.

“It is wonderful to see these young indigos have the opportunity to fill their important role as a lynchpin species in the longleaf pine ecosystem,” Bogan said.

Eastern indigo snakes provide balance to the “now rare” ecosystem, eating venomous and nonvenomous snakes, as well as other wildlife, according to conservationists. They’re native to the southeast U.S., but their range has decreased in part due to habitat loss.

The federally threatened snake disappeared from the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve after 1982, but scientists hope reintroduction efforts since 2017 will be good for both the snake species and the ecosystem as a whole.

The Central Florida Zoo bred the 2-year-old snakes for release, but a victory came in 2023, when conservationists discovered wild eastern indigo snakes that weren’t bred by the zoo.

“This year is particularly special because we actually found two hatchlings on the preserve this last survey season,” according to Michelle Hoffman, a field biologist with the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation. “So it’s kind of great to see that the snakes are surviving and reproducing successfully.”

The snakes typically reach 5 to 7 feet in length but can grow more than 8 feet long, making them the longest snake species native to North America, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo.

So far, 167 snakes have been released in the preserve, conservationists shared.

Those involved in the yearslong efforts are celebrating the program’s success, including Michele Elmore, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery biologist for the eastern indigo snake.

“The indigo is gaining momentum to return to the landscape where it belongs,” Elmore said.

The Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve is in the Florida Panhandle, about a 45-mile drive west from Tallahassee.

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