Good news for the threatened narrow-headed gartersnake!

Jan. 10, 2023


PhD Candidate Brian Blais recently published a paper analyzing reproductive behavior of the threatened narrow-headed gartersnake, with findings that will bolster the effectiveness of conservation efforts on the ground and in zoos.


The narrow-headed gartersnake is a fish-eating, semi-aquatic snake, found only in and around the cool headwater streams of Arizona and New Mexico. Declines in narrow-headed gartersnakes are associated with introduced invasive species, such as crayfish, and habitat loss and degradation. Habitat loss may reduce available resources and isolate populations from each other, hindering connectivity needed to sustain genetic diversity and stave off the danger of small population sizes, such as inbreeding. Small populations are at heightened risk of extinction, which could create an uncertain future for this unique Southwestern species.


KCRL PhD Candidate Brian Blais and coauthors (including KCRL PhD Candidate Stu Wells) analyzed nearly a decade’s worth of data collected on the Phoenix Zoo’s conservation breeding population of narrow-headed gartersnakes to better understand their reproductive ecology. Among the Zoo’s main goals are to reintroduce gartersnakes back into their native habitats. These snakes also provide important opportunities to better understand the behavior, physiology, and health of the species—all of which helps inform aspects of managing wild populations.


In addition to providing more detailed information about growth rates, litter size, and reproductive behavior, Blais et al. found that these gartersnakes may have wider breeding periods than initially thought. Such knowledge is important for researchers in the field as well as caretakers in zoos. For example, better size-to-age estimates for narrow-headed gartersnakes can help assess population demographics, and zoo staff may be able to increase reproductive success of reservoir populations. Such efforts are important for conserving the species and mitigating extinction risks for their isolated populations.


The Phoenix Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and meets AZA's high standards of animal care and welfare. Conservation is a central pillar of zoological accreditation, and provides opportunities to learn and adaptively manage at-risk taxa, such as the efforts by Blais and colleagues. Such collaborative opportunities can facilitate research towards conservation goals species, as illustrated in this paper.


When deciding on which zoo to visit, check their website to see if they are accredited by a zoological association to maintain high standards in animal welfare, conservation, and educational opportunities.


To find out more about Brian and his work, visit his research page here.