ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The northern Mexican garter snake was once thought to be extinct in New Mexico. Not so, according to biologists at the Albuquerque BioPark.
They found three of the snakes in early June near the Gila River and another three later in the month. Two of the snakes were studied, tagged and released. The remaining four were brought to the Albuquerque Zoo to establish a breeding population.
The goal is to produce offspring that can be reintroduced to protected habitat in the wild.
Doug Hotle, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the BioPark, said one of the snakes found last month was a young female, which indicates the wild population is reproducing.
“Based on what we’ve seen so far, this is a very successful group of snakes living in ideal wetland habitat,” he said. “We can do on-the-ground study to find out more about these rare garters and what their needs are here in New Mexico.”
The snakes at the BioPark are expected to go on public display soon.
The northern Mexican garter snake is a candidate for federal endangered species protection. It was once found throughout Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and parts of Mexico. Scientists said it had been nearly 20 years since the last confirmed sighting of the snake in New Mexico.
Hotle said the discovery marks a huge step forward for his team.
“We have spent nearly three years and thousands of man-hours looking for the northern Mexican garter snake,” he said. “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.”
In addition to establishing the breeding program, the BioPark herpetologists will continue participating in field studies and overall population management along with experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and game and fish departments in New Mexico and Arizona.
Scientists from several universities in the two states are also working on the project, which looks at overall population health, behaviors like movement, hibernation and breeding and habitat conditions.
The rarest of the eight types of garter snakes in New Mexico, the northern Mexican garter snake lives only in wetland areas with thick vegetation. They hunt for tadpoles and minnows.
Biologists say more than 90 percent 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.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.