Adaptive management in a conservation breeding program: Mimicking habitat complexities facilitates reproductive success in narrow-headed gartersnakes (Thamnophis rufipunctatus)
Mimicking natural parameters and complexities in zoo conservation breeding programs can facilitate natural physiological and behavioral traits, which in turn can inform more effective species reintroduction efforts. To curtail population declines of threatened narrow-headed gartersnakes (Thamnophis rufipunctatus), the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation/Phoenix Zoo partnered with a multiagency conservation working group to develop an ex situ propagation-for-release program. Initially, Zoo staff followed common snake husbandry protocols of manually inducing brumation (i.e., winter dormancy). Copulation was observed during the first few years, but no births resulted. Also, some older individuals developed post-brumation health abnormalities, prompting a strategic reassessment. To facilitate propagation and improve health, Zoo staff applied ecological knowledge of T. rufipunctatus and an adaptive management strategy to implement key parameters for success: sociality, refugia, breeding and foraging behaviors, and natural brumation. Zoo staff developed a large multisnake enclosure that mimicked natural ecological and habitat complexities including a hibernaculum to stimulate natural brumation. Gartersnakes were left mostly unimpeded to conduct natural behaviors across seasons in the enriched environment. We referenced change in body mass after ten brumation periods as a proxy for health. Under natural brumation, gartersnakes did not lose body mass, and this shift resulted in fully ex situ parturition events—the first for this imperiled species. We highlight the efficacy of adaptive management and incorporation of natural parameters and environmental complexities into conservation breeding programs. These actions can improve the health and success of animals under managed care—processes applicable to a range of taxa targeted for conservation translocations.