Bridging conservation across the ex situ‐in situ spectrum: Insights into the reproductive ecology of the threatened narrow‐headed gartersnake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus)
Zoo‐based (ex situ) conservation breeding programs provide invaluable opportunities to uncover enigmatic behaviors and traits of focal species under managed care, which can support research and conservation management efforts. A suite of factors and a limited range have yielded population declines in the threatened narrow‐headed gartersnake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus). Better understanding its cryptic ecology and life history (e.g., reproductive ecology) offers conservation benefits. We analyzed data on courtship behavior, parity and litter size, offspring size, and neonatal growth from an ex situ T. rufipunctatus population at the Phoenix Zoo from 2009 to 2018. Courtship behavior and parturition phenology are likely linked with the North American monsoon season, yet the courtship window may be wider than realized. We document the first instances of interannual iteroparity and multigenerational rearing of successful breeders at the ex situ level. Litter sizes varied but were relative to maternal body mass, suggesting that fecundity may be driven by intrinsic condition (e.g., age and size) of breeding females. Mean offspring body masses were equivalent between sexes, and neonate growth trends were quadratic during their first 9 months. Sexual dimorphism became apparent around 4–5 months age. Much of these data are novel for T. rufipunctatus and provide insight into their reproductive ecology. Phenology of reproductive ecology and body size metrics can guide field surveillance, age estimations, and population ecology monitoring, as well as inform ex situ adaptive management practices. Strategies spanning the ex situ‐in situ spectrum are applicable to other imperiled taxa to better inform conservation management decisions.