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Northern Mexican Gartersnake Back from Extinction

BioPark experts discover and protect a rare snake from southern New Mexico.

Northern Mexican Gartersnake Back from Extinction

A northern Mexican gartersnake. Photo by Doug Hotle/ABQ BioPark.

June 26, 2013

It's been nearly 20 years since the last confirmed sighting of the northern Mexican gartersnake (Thamnophis eques megalops) in New Mexico, and scientists suspected the species was extirpated, or locally extinct, until earlier this month. Herpetologists from the ABQ BioPark Zoo discovered three northern Mexican gartersnakes along a stretch of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico.

BioPark biologists identified, measured, took DNA samples, tagged and released two of the snakes; they brought the third back to Albuquerque for the state herpetologist to verify identification. Currently in quarantine behind-the-scenes, the male will join other rare reptiles in the Conservation Gallery of the Reptile House in coming weeks. It will likely be a founding member of a breeding population that will live at the Zoo.

"This is a huge find for our team. We have spent nearly three years and thousands of man-hours looking for the northern Mexican gartersnake," said Doug Hotle, Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians. "Although many have written this species off for the state, we thought it was still here somewhere undetected. This discovery means there is still hope for the species and its habitat."

New Mexico is home to eight types of gartersnakes. The northern Mexican gartersnake is the rarest, listed as an endangered species in New Mexico and a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. State herpetologists last verified a sighting of the northern Mexican gartersnake in 1994. The BioPark's discovery of three young males on June 2, 2013 indicates that at least one viable, reproducing population still exists in our state.

Northern Mexican gartersnakes live only in wetland areas with thick vegetation, where they hunt for tadpoles and minnows. Over 90% of riparian habitats have disappeared in the last century due to overgrazing, water diversion, wildfires and drought. Invasive species like bullfrogs and crayfish eat young garters and are an additional threat to the species.

The ABQ BioPark is part of the Mexican Gartersnake Working Group, which includes experts from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, as well as universities, zoos and state wildlife agencies from New Mexico and Arizona. (Arizona has several small T. eques populations.) In addition to partnering on field studies, BioPark herpetologists will collect one additional male and two females for an ex situ breeding program. The team will build off experience they have gained working with another rare species, the narrow-headed gartersnake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus). They have developed natural habitat systems and management practices to limit human interaction with snakes that will be reintroduced to the wild.

In a few weeks, BioPark guests will be able to encounter northern Mexican gartersnakes, along with other rare and interesting animals in the Reptile House, which is open daily from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. and included with regular admission. For more information, email [email protected] or dial 311 locally (505-768-2000).

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